Religion is not supposed to make us feel good about ourselves.
The Third Sunday of the Great Fast, known as the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross.
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11:42 AM 3/28/2011 ó The third Sunday of the Great Fast is, as you know, dedicated to the veneration of the Cross of Christ. And the gospel lesson we hear is well known to us as well:
Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospelís shall find it.
Familiar words, but which we hear so often that we rarely think of them with the seriousness our Lord intends. Denying ourselves is a foreign concept to us, at least when it comes to denying oneself for something as intangible as eternal salvation. We easily deny ourselves to lose weight, or to save money, or to garner the favor of another; it doesnít naturally occur to us to deny ourselves for something that canít be touched or felt or appreciated in this life.
Last week, in discussing the palsied man, I made a brief reference to how some people work themselves into such an emotional frenzy over their personal problems, that they become paralyzed in the living of their lives. They slink into confession to cry about what others have done to them, turning the confessional it into some sort of therapistís couch, seeking not so much the forgiveness of their sins from Christ as some kind of consolation form the priest which will make them feel better about whatever is bothering them. Of course, thatís not what the confessional is for; but I think the reason some people tend to do that is because they havenít come to grips with what the cross is all about. The self-help, pop-psychology which has replaced religion in the minds of many peopleóeven churchgoing peopleóhas been so blended into our culture that, for many of us, religion has become nothing more than just another form of group therapy.
Assuming that the purpose of the Great Fast is to help us get back to the basics of what weíre all about as Christians, and reorient ourselves back into a truly religious frame of mind, the reason for pausing in the middle of it to venerate the Cross of our Lord is clear. There is no way to view the Cross of Christ as a therapeutic tool; and our Lordís words in the gospel couldnít be more direct: ďAnyone who would come me after must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow meĒóand thatís what the word ďChristianĒ means: a follower of Christ. I must deny myself because being a Christian isnít about me; itís about Christ. The paradox isóas our Lord explainsóthat it is precisely in this self-denial that we find our own fulfillment, if we understand that fulfillment to be the attaining of eternal life. Thatís why our Lord says, ďAnyone who would save his life will lose it,Ē meaning that, if my energy is going to be spent trying to heal myself, cure myself, come to terms with myself, fulfill myself, make myself feel better, Iím not going to accomplish anything because Iím working from the wrong angle; because the Christian life isnít about me. But then he says, ďAnyone who would lose his life for my sake and the gospelís will find it,Ē meaning that, if we set aside this self-absorption, and instead orient our lives toward his will and the way of life that he has laid out for us in the gospel, then we will have set ourselves in the direction of heaven, which is what we were created for in the first place.
Thereís a reason why we kiss the Cross of Christ on this day. Itís not just an arbitrary religious gesture which we observe out of tradition. When you kiss someone, itís a sign of love and acceptance. When you kiss the Cross it means that youíre accepting everything that Cross represents: not just the crucifixion of our Lord which save us, but also the acceptance of that Cross in your own life. The person who kisses the Cross with sincerity does not run away from the challenges and sufferings that Christian living in a fundamentally godless world imposes on him. Far from seeking his own comfort, he embraces the Cross, because he knows, from the example of his Lord, that it is from that death on the Cross that eternal life springs.
Father Michael Venditti