The Third Sunday in the Great Fast is the twenty-first day of the forty-day fast. We are half way to our Holy Week observance of the Lord’s passion and resurrection. At this mid-point the Church directs our attention to the holy cross and to Christ’s injunction, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).
The cross, adorned with flowers, is brought forth for veneration as on September 14. While that feast commemorates the historical events of the finding of the cross by St Helena and its return to Jerusalem after the Persian invasion, today’s commemoration focuses on the meaning of the cross in our lives, especially during the Great Fast. We are encouraged to continue to “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24) during the rest of this fasting season.
The Gospel of the Cross
The Gospel read at the Divine Liturgy today is part of a series of five vignettes in which we see Christ coming to the end of His earthly ministry. Describing the first part of this ministry, Mark emphasizes what has been called the “Messianic secret.” As Jesus teaches and performs miracles, people are regularly told to keep silent about what He has done. First of all He must form His disciples to see Him as the Messiah, the Christ. Finally, as Jesus and His followers are walking from one village to another, “…He asked His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ So they answered, ‘John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 6:27-29). With Peter’s act of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Church is born.
The Lord then begins preparing His followers to see what kind of Messiah He really is. Like many in those days, the disciples assumed that the Messiah would be a kind of Jewish Julius Caesar driving out the occupiers and restoring the kingdom to Israel. In the second vignette Jesus announces that as Messiah He will suffer, die and rise again. “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly” (Mark 8:31-32). There is no Messianic secret here. The disciples must be prepared for what is to come.
This is so far from the disciples’ expectation that Peter objects. “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get behind Me, Satan – for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Mark 8:32-33). Peter objects; he knows what victorious generals – the things of men – look like. This third vignette shows that he hasn’t a clue about the things of God.
Finally we come to today’s Gospel selection: the fourth vignette in this sequence. My kingdom is not what you think. Its throne is the cross and whoever wants a place in this kingdom must accept a cross as well: the cross of self denial.
As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once said, “The Lord has told us that in the Christian Church and in the Kingdom, a King is not one who overpowers others to exact from them unconditional and slavish obedience, but He is the one who serves and gives His life for others.
“St. John Chrysostom teaches us that anyone can rule, but that no one but a king gives his life for his people, because he so identifies with his people that he has no existence, no life, no purpose but to serve them with all his life and if necessary with his death.”
As followers of Christ today we may find that our stations in life will give up many opportunities for self-denial. The clergy are continually called upon to make sacrifices for the Church they have been called to serve. Monastics in their communities and spouses in their homes have daily opportunities to offer themselves for one another and the members of their families. Every Christian with open eyes will see that God gives us countless opportunities to humble ourselves for the service of others in the parish or the wider community in which we live. Taking up the cross means putting others first every day.
Our changing society is increasingly giving us opportunities to shoulder the cross in a more drastic way. You may lose your job. You may lose your health. You may lose your home. You may lose your pension or your reputation. You may lose everything on which you rely.
In this we look to Christ as our model. In the words of St. Paul, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Christians living in countries dominated by other religions or by an aggressive secularism are finding themselves increasingly isolated and discriminated against for their faith in Christ. They might find it easier to see the choice that they are called to make than we in our as yet more accepting society. Their choice may be to deny Christ or leave town. Our choice may be to affirm a neighbor’s abortion or to lose the friendship of their family.
In either case these cautionary words of our Lord apply: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:35-38).
Fasting and Taking Up the Cross
We still have a few weeks of the Fast remaining. They give us the opportunity to assess whether we are more committed to our small comforts or to the call of Christ. If we are so enslaved to certain foods and entertainments, how will we be able to give up something more serious for the sake of God’s kingdom? The Great Fast helps us to see the depth of our willingness to take up the cross in our daily life.