Sunday, September 20, 2015: Sunday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Great-martyr Eustathios and his family; Venerable-martyr Hilarion of St. Anne Skete on Athos; Venerable John of Crete; Martyrs Michael, prince of Chernigov, and his councilor Theodore
Especially in the last 100 years or so, many Christians have come to associate the fact that faith in Jesus Christ requires from us specific actions as a betrayal of the Gospel. To say that this or that is required for salvation is backsliding into “works righteousness,” a rejection of what Paul tells us in this morning’s Epistle. How can we say that we must be baptized, go to confession and receive Holy Communion and not, by these very assertions, deny that we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”?
Or so the argument goes.
Whatever it meant for Luther and the other Reformers, the appeal to salvation by grace alone today has become a breezy rejection of dogma, the demands of the moral law, of sacraments and tradition. Of the three great solae of Reformation theology—sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia—the last has become for many Christians—including sadly even some Orthodox Christians—a justification not of sinners before God but simply of indifference to sin itself.
Compare this to Christ’s words in today’s Gospel:
If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.
Sin having “marr[ed] the workmanship of God” St John Chrysostom says, requires not simply a formal act of divine forgiveness but the active restoration of the soul to its original beauty. Sin has obscured, though not destroyed in us, the image of God. We are all of us like icons covered in soot. For the image to shine forth, the icon needs to be cleaned. Dirt and grime need to be removed so that, once again, the image of Christ can be seen.
In the tradition of the Church the ascetical life is the process by which, building on the grace of the sacraments, we are restored to our original beauty. Ascetical struggle is the embodiment of what we are told in the Gospel this morning. We must, daily, deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.
According to the Venerable Bede after telling His disciples about “the mystery of His passion and resurrection,” Jesus goes on to command them, “as well as the multitude, to follow the example of His passion.” So together with repentance and baptism, Christian discipleship requires obedience to the example Christ. We must imitate in our lives His own obedience to the Father. In other words, I must myself practice asceticism.
Some of our confusion about asceticism, that is prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is the result of a certain tendency to assume that ascetical struggle as such is the point of the Christian life; it isn’t, love is. A “man may suffer,” Chrysostom says, “yet not follow Christ.” Rather than suffering, asceticism is in the service of the sacrificial love that is at the heart of the Christian life. Asceticism fosters in us the discipline we need to follow Christ, to walk after Him and conform ourselves day in and day out to His example.
Turning from the text of the Gospel to our everyday lives, we realize that we know all this already. Even those who live according to the demands of the world and who desire nothing other than success in this life know all this. There is no success in this life without struggle, without a willingness to lay aside the desires of the moment in pursuit of one’s goals. So “if in battles of this world, he who is prepared for death fights better than others” how much more is it the case, Chrysostom asks, “when so great a hope of resurrection is set before him”?
Examples of this kind of spontaneous asceticism are all around us.
Think about those who work long hours for low wages and in harsh conditions to support themselves and their families. Or parents who sacrifice for their children’s future. These men and women, and those like them, daily lay aside their own will for the good of others.
Asceticism is natural to us. Ascetical struggle isn’t something super-added to human life. It is rather the means that God has given us to become who we are already. Or maybe even better, asceticism is our natural response as creatures to God’s love.
And yet, asceticism is still hard to grasp. Why? Because it is nothing more or less that the paradox of the Cross—”whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it”—and it is the Cross, not my own desires, which is the actual foundation of my life.
True happiness, true joy and true and lasting peace come not from imposing ourselves on the world of persons, events and things. No happiness, joy peace and life everlasting are found only in and through the myriad small acts of obedience to God’s will . We must be obedient not occasionally but daily, really moment by moment.
What you and I are called to do is simply this: To abandon ourselves to God. The French Jesuit spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade writes that we never lack the opportunity to abandon ourselves to God.
There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action (Abandonment to Divine Providence, II:1).
Christian holiness he says consisting “in one thing alone, namely, fidelity to God’s plan. And this fidelity is equally within everyone’s capacity in both its active and passive exercise” (I:3).
Or, in the words of St Herman of Alaska, “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all and fulfill His holy will.” Different words, different men, different times but the same idea; to be a Christian in fact and not just in name requires that we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him in every moment of our lives until we enter with the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints into His Kingdom.