My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This Sunday (March 22), during the Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, we will mark the halfway point of the Holy Fast. At this point, many of us may be starting to get into the groove of fasting, praying, and almsgiving. Perhaps we have attended Great Compline, Pre-Sanctified Liturgies, or Salutations to the Theotokos for the first tme. Perhaps we have increased or giving during this period. Perhaps we have tried to increase our fast by making it a little stricter than last year. For many, this might be a time of vitality and increased spirituality, but for many others, the fast has become tiring. For some, focusing on prayers has become difficult; meetings and obligations have suddenly popped up when going to services had been something previously desired. For some, everyday conversations have become irritating and we find ourselves getting annoyed with people in ways we previously would not have. It can seem like a time when we should give up. After all, aren’t we only human?
This is not crazy. This is by spiritual design. It is not merely lack of healthy fats in the brain causing irritability and increased tiredness. Our enemy who never sleeps and does not need to eat, has increased his war against you to destroy the holiness of your fast. He wants you to give up. Worse, he wants you to judge your brothers and sisters, whether for their sinful behavior or because they do not hold to the fast like you do. So wily is our enemy that he attacks from the other side too. He makes us believe that others are judging us whether for lack of strict fasting or missing service or Church events. He, the great divider, wants to sew discord within our spiritual and physical families.
It is for this reason that our Mother Church places right in the middle of Lent the Adoration of the Precious Holy Cross. Some might look to this to remind us that our paltry suffering cannot compare to the brutality of what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ suffered on the Cross, but the Cross is not meant to be a source of guilt for our weakness. This is not to say, “Well Jesus is God, so of course He can whether the cross and all human suffering.” Not even remotely. Jesus Christ is indeed 100% God, but He is also 100% human. He showed this to us in several ways. He wept for His friend Lazarus (John 11:35). But the most telling example of His humanity comes to us in the Garden of Gethsemane in which He asked that “this cup” be taken away. That is, he was praying to God the Father that He not have to face the Scourging, the Crown of Thorns, the Cross, and Death (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, and Luke 22:42). It is very human to fear pain and death, but in all things Jesus Christ teaches us “Thy will be done,” as he immediately states, “nevertheless, not my will, but Your will be done.” The cross was not an easy task. Even though it was a task that our Lord Himself agreed to.
Our forefather, the Righteous Abraham met with the Lord under the Oak of Mamre. There, the Lord promised for the third time that he and Sarah would conceive and bear a son, Isaac (Genesis 18). At that meeting the Lord gave the three staffs He and the two angels carried as a symbol of that promise. Shortly after this event the Lord rained fire and brimstone on the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Only Lot and his family were spared, but his wife turned to look back despite the warning not to and was turned to a pillar of salt (Genesis 19). In terror, Lot took his daughters to a cave in Zoar where they caused their father to get drunk and slept with him begetting the Moabites and the Ammonites, two cursed lines because of their incestuous origin. This ends the Scriptural story of Lot.
However, according to Holy Tradition in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Lot traveled to his uncle Abraham and asked what he could do to be forgiven this terrible sin. Abraham told him to plant the green staffs and then travel a half a days journey to the River Jordan to bring water to them. On the day the staffs flowered, Lot would know God had forgiven him. This meant he would need to spend an entire day to bring back the water.
Each time Lot would come back, he would lose the water. Whether it was giving thirsty pilgrims drink, or thieves stealing the water, or the sack of water tearing, or the donkey losing its footing or the buckle holding the water, or even the devil himself swallowing the water, not even a single drop touched the staffs, which still had not died. This did not happen over the course of a few days, but over the span of 40 years. My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We are losing heart over 40 days. Lot went 40 years. He could have thought, “God will never forgive me. Surely I should accept these signs of his wrath and accept my fate. I should give up.” But he never did, so zealously did he desire forgiveness of his sin.
After 40 years, the Lord accepted the water, and out of a single root came three trees: cedar, cypress and pine; a clear reference to the Trinity.
This tree was cut down to help build the Temple of Solomon, but the wo
od would not cooperate. Despite measuring it, the wood would sometimes be too long, and others too short. They discovered that the wood would contract and expand constantly, making it worthless to building. The wood was placed in the Temple Storeroom until the Crucifixion of Christ in which the Sanhedrin desired to make the execution of Jesus more painful. This shows us that Jesus Christ, the Lord, provided the very wood of the Cross to us, and from its inception it related to the forgiveness of sins.
Let us venerate the Cross of the Lord, offering our tender affection as the cypress, the sweet fragrance of our faith as the cedar, and our sincere love as the pine; and let us glorify our Deliverer who was nailed upon it.*
* A reference to the three kinds of wood from which the Cross was made; cf. Isa. 60:13 (Sept.).
— Wednesday Orthros of the Fourth Week of Lent, Ode 7, Lenten Triodion
Therefore, let us not allow the evil one to rob us of our salvation. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” ( 1 John 1:8). There is no sin He will not forgive if we repent earnestly. Let us earnestly seek our forgiveness as Lot did. Let us, during this midpoint of Great Lent, look to the source of our hope: the Precious Cross. Let us lift it up and cry out the triumphal Apolytikion: Save O Lord, Your people and bless Your inheritance, grant victory to the faithful against the adversaries of the faith. And protect your people by the power of Your Cross.
We are halfway there. Let us finish the Fast strong and greet Holy Week strengthened. Before Your Cross, we bow down, O Master, and Your holy resurrection we glorify.
I remain your servant in Christ,
Fr. Dimitri Tobias, Proistamenos