Sermon on the Third Sunday of Lent
the Veneration of the Precious Cross
Mark 8:34–38; 9:1
As we now come to the middle of the blessed period of the Fast (that attempt to turn our life back to its prelapsarian and paradisiacal state), the Church presents us with the Precious Cross of the Lord, the Tree of Life which stands in the middle of Paradise, where man lived in the presence of God and where “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25); in other words, where man hid nothing and did not feel shame because he was covered by the grace of God and had no experience of sin. And it is on this subject of shame (a word used in today’s Gospel reading) and its spiritual significance that I wanted to say a few words today.
We have to remember that the Cross was the Roman instrument, not only of torture and death, but first and foremost of shame. Both the Sacred Scriptures and the liturgical texts of the Church stress the fact that the Lord’s bodily death on the Cross was a shameful death, and that it was through this shame that he frees us from the shame of sin.
Therefore, when the Lord says that whoever wishes to come after him must take up his cross, this must also be understood to include this notion of shame.
This is because the primary enemy of and obstacle to our salvation, the root of every evil, is our pride. The stoic endurance of physical pain or the difficulties of life can cultivate many virtues and can help us with various aspects of our spiritual life, but even here, the motivation for such endurance is often this sense of self-respect; that is, our pride. If someone is sufficiently proud, they are capable of incredible feats of endurance, and can bear almost every physical and psychological trial, so as not to betray the slightest hint of weakness. The only thing pride cannot bear is shame, and this is precisely why shame is an essential weapon in our spiritual arsenal against the passions. The ego has to be crucified, there is no other way to defeat it.
The Lord’s Gospel begins with the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand”. Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou — from the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, who came here to speak to you all a couple of weeks ago — says in one of his books that this exhortation to repentance is a resumption of the dialogue between God and man which took place in Paradise, and which was interrupted by the fall of Adam. However, for this dialogue to resume, in order for man to be able to repent truly, it is necessary for him to have his sin revealed to him, to see clearly what dwells within him and what state he’s in.
The shame a person feels when they come face to face with their sin is the pain of the wounded ego. The more clearly a person sees himself, the greater the feeling of shame. And at that point we have a decision to make: We can either hide the truth again, and run away from the presence of God as Adam did in Paradise, and allow our ego to enslave us and lead us into perdition and insanity. Or we can take responsibility for our mistakes and our sins and present ourselves as we are, we can remove every secret and hidden evil from our heart.
God has given us the Mystery of Confession and Repentance in order to help us to put this into practice, and the significance of this Sacrament is emphasised especially during the Lenten season. Let us make use of this precious gift of God. Let us not approach the Mystery superficially or formally, but let us run to open our hearts without hypocrisy and without hesitation. Then our ego shall no longer have anything to blackmail us with, it will no longer be able to hold us to ransom and will lose every authority it had over us. Then the pain of shame shall be transformed to joy and glory, just as the Cross, the symbol of shame, became the symbol of victory. Then we will be like Adam and Eve in Paradise, “naked…and not ashamed”, and ready to partake of the Tree of Life.
As the late Bishop Anthony Bloom of blessed memory is to have said, “God can save the sinner you are, but not the saint you pretend to be”. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg