Today is the Lenten feast of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. Last night, towards the end of the vigil, the Life-giving Cross was brought out for veneration and it remains in the Church for the whole week for our help and encouragement. In this Cross there is a particle of the true Cross upon which Our Savior was crucified. Thus when we venerate it here this week, we are mystically transported to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem, to Golgotha where the cross once stood. And from Golgotha, it is only a short walk, a few hundred feet, to the tomb of the Lord where He rose from the dead. The Cross is brought out now to remind us that we have completed the first half of Great Lent. For those of us who have not started fasting as of yet, the Cross is a stern reminder that now is the time to get our act together and start, or Pascha will come and we will have missed this opportunity. For those of us who are fasting but may be feeling that we are weakening, the sanctity of the Cross strengthens us. And even for us who are not weakening but doing well, the Cross rewards us with Grace. After all, the Cross is our spiritual sword against the dark enemies that we encounter every day.
That the Cross is our weapon of salvation shows us how incredibly merciful the Lord is. In the Old Testament Scripture we see that the Cross was considered to be a curse. It was the diabolical invention of Satan to be used in the most horrific way for men to destroy each other. The Savior takes this diabolical tool and sanctifies it with His blood by dying on it. The Cross then becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil if we use it as Christ did. What incredible mercy of the Savior to take something that was developed to horrifically destroy us and make it our ladder into the kingdom of God!
How then can we use the Cross as our Lord did and gain this benefit? When our Lord prepared Himself for the ordeal that He would face in giving His life for us, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. There He poured out His heart to the Father and felt, as God, the full force of the struggle that we face as His fallen creatures. He knows our weakness, He knows our pain, He knows our shortcomings, He knows the temptation that we face both from our own fallen nature and from the demonic forces which confront us. He knows these things first hand for having taken on our flesh, He experienced all that we experience, from moment of our birth to the instant of our death. All of this He poured out in prayer and then, seeing the extreme suffering that awaited Him on this path of self sacrifice for us, He fell on His face saying, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” And rising from His prayer He found the disciples sleeping and He roused them instructing them to watch and pray that they might not fall prey to temptation. He returned again to His own prayer and again a second time said, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matt 26:39-42) In these two prayers we see the core of how He approached the cross and how we should likewise do so. Jesus Christ is God incarnate – God, the Creator of all that is, took our flesh and assumed our whole life. He saw joy and sorrow, He experienced everything that we do in this life. He had a human will that reacted to all these things as would our own will. At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, that human will was brought out and seeing what was ahead He cried out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And then comes the key moment of the Cross where He says, “and yet not my will but Thine be done.” At that moment the human will of Christ is in perfect harmony with the divine will, even though that harmony will result in temporary suffering and death.
Here it is, the very thing that we need to adopt in our own lives in order to fully ascend the Cross with Christ in such a way that it becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil. The Cross is an altar of sacrifice and on that altar we offer the one thing that we have to offer – our will. Coming to the Cross we can cry out with this very prayer, “not my will but Thine” sacrificing the one thing that separates us from complete harmony with God. The Psalmist himself saw this a millennium before and cried out in the 50th Psalm, “the sacrifice for God is a broken heart, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.” Our own will, the very heart of our being as a free person and the pivot upon which we choose to follow Christ or not is the very thing that we must sacrifice.
By offering up your own will you renounce what “I want” and instead embrace what God gives. This is the essence of the Cross as the symbol of our victory. If we can do this, then we can walk the path of salvation in harmony with Jesus Christ.
Offering up the will means that we set aside our own desires and accept with joy that which God gives to us. Until we set aside our own will, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to see what God gives because we are so focused on what we want that we are unable to perceive anything else. Everything that we see is colored by the lens of our own desires. If something is good to us it is because that thing conforms to our desire and if it is bad, it is because it goes against our desire. While still wrapped up in our own will, its hard to see things from any different perspective (and if we happen to be able to step out of ourselves for a moment and see something different, it remains impossible to act on it without first denying ourselves.) In order to take this step of acceptance with joy of all that God gives, we first must bring our will into harmony with His. That means giving up our own hopes and dreams and desires and goals and directing our will to only one goal – that of being with our Lord Jesus Christ. If He is our only desire, then to follow Him instead of ourselves becomes the natural thing to do.
But such self sacrifice requires that we love God above all else and secondly that we trust Him to love us and to bring us to Himself. That trust is important because what we are doing when we sacrifice our own will is that we are putting ourselves fully and completely in the hands of God. We trust that He loves us and desires that we come into communion and union with Him. Because He loves us, He also arranges our lives in such a way that everything works together for the purpose of bringing us to Himself. For this reason the Apostle was able to say, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) That “good” is the fulfillment of the one desire of the will that has been sacrificed to God – to be with Him. Our all-powerful God brings every thing in our lives into the service of this one desire, to be with Him. Knowing this, we can have confidence that every event, every joy, every sorrow, every moment of our lives is part of the path to be with God. Thus no matter what happens, whether “good” or “bad” from a worldly point of view, we can embrace it and rejoice in it for that moment has brought us one step closer to Christ – our one and only true desire.
Here then is how we sacrifice our will on the altar of the Cross and offer it to our Lord Jesus Christ. The prayer, “not my will but Thine be done” is the key to transforming the Cross from an instrument of torture and death into the symbol of our victory and the font of joy. Sacrifice your will, set aside your own desires, your hopes and dreams and goals. Replace your will with the will of God and embrace all that He brings to you in this life. When your only love, your only desire is to be with Christ, then every moment of your life becomes one more step closer the realization of that desire. Our Lord arranges every step of the way so that it brings us nearer to Him and having that confidence we can then embrace all that comes to us and accept it with joy for we are coming ever nearer to Jesus Christ.
This then is the path of the Cross; the path not of suffering and torture, but of joy and rejoicing. Abandon yourself into the arms of Jesus Christ outstretched to receive you on the Cross and you will receive your desire for just as you have embraced Him, so will He embrace you.