On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent the Church commemorates Saint John of the Ladder, who received his name for the book he wrote about ascending the ladder to heaven. The first step, where if we are honest with ourselves we spend our entire life, is Renouncing the World. Saint John wasn’t the first to suggest this. Christ Himself said we must first deny ourselves before following Him. The Gospel reading this Sunday (Mark 9.17-31) speaks about how only prayer and fasting will be enough to get us through the most difficult challenges to our faith.
During Great Lent, we Orthodox spend most of our time focusing on prayer and fasting. There are extra services offered daily accompanied by the sharing of various fasting foods and recipes. Some even accuse us of placing too much emphasis on fasting during Great Lent. In fact, many spend so much time reading food labels in search of “legal” foods, it can be easy to forget why we place so much emphasis on fasting in the first place.
This week I’ve written about trust, charity, forgiveness, and even fatigue during Great Lent, all to express different understandings of the cross we bear for Christ. Today I wrap up our weekly theme with service to the Church. Service to the Church is different from charity because it involves those to whom you are eternally united through baptism. When we serve those outside the Church we are showing love for our fellow human beings, but when we serve the Church we express our duty and responsibility to Christ’s Church for the sake of the Gospel.
You read here on more than one occasion my advice to allow the Church to guide your life. I often comment that the rhythm of the Church (read The Rhythm of Great Lent) is mean to bring us closer to Christ. The life of the Orthodox Church is a life of feasts and fasts, a life of cycles that creates a wonderful rhythm in our soul. But trusting the Church can be a cross.
I admit it! I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m grumpy. I’m frustrated. It must be Great Lent. At some point during your Great Lenten Journey, I’m guessing you have felt some, most, or all these emotions. At this point during the fourth week of our journey, Great Lent seems to be taking its toll on me. You may not be experiencing this struggle, but for me Lenten Fatigue is another cross I must bear during the final weeks before Holy Week.
Continuing with our theme of bearing our cross this week, I turn to the third leg of our spiritual stool. One topic we have not yet discussed during our Great Lenten Journey is that of charity. Our Lord calls us to serve others as we were reminded before Great Lent began on Judgment Sunday. If we don’t serve others we cannot enter into heaven. Look again at Recognizing Heaven, and you will remember that it isn’t what we do, but how we see others that makes the difference.
I mentioned yesterday that we were invited by Christ to pick up our cross. Each us has a unique burden, but each of us also struggle with similar challenges. As we continue our conversation about embracing our struggle, I thought I would return to the topic of forgiveness. We heard several weeks ago, before the beginning of our Great Lenten Journey, that if we didn’t forgive others in our hearts, God would not forgive us. Forgiveness is a difficult cross.
It is day 22 of our Great Lenten Journey and now that we are past the half-way point, things are getting serious. Now that we are over the hump (as they say) our journey will begin to go by much faster as there are every day fewer days ahead than behind us. Of course, we know intellectually that time doesn’t go by any faster, but before you realize it, we will be entering Holy Week. After the half-way point of Great Lent, themes shift, and our minds are ever closer to what really matters – the Cross of Christ.
As we enter the fourth week of Great Lent, it is always good to be reminded that the Christian life is a struggle. The hardest part isn’t the fasting, nor the prayers, nor attending Church. It isn’t even avoiding sin. The hardest part of being a Christian doesn’t even have anything to do with our behavior is sinful or not, but how we react to how other behave. Everyone has free will, and if God doesn’t force people to act in a certain way, neither can we.
On the third Sunday of Great Lent, halfway through our annual journey toward Pascha, the Church turns our attention on the Cross. Just as the Cross is the destination of Christ for His earthly ministry, it remains our destination as Christians if we choose to follow Christ. Today’s Gospel readings opens with the invitation from Christ, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34)