Since it's a bit of a long one, I'll skip the preamble. Our April 2011 Post of the Month award goes to Gebre Menfes Kidus for this gem:
Great Lent has come to an end, and the glorious Feast of the Resurrection is upon us. So, in the spirit of the occasion, I wanted to offer these humble thoughts that I hope will provide us all with encouragement and strength as we transition from the Great Fast to the Great Feast.
I don’t know about you, but Lent has once again revealed my weaknesses rather than my strengths. As usual, I began Lent with zealous determination and great resolve. But invariably, the circumstances of life, the lethargy of my soul, and the passions of the flesh dampened my zeal and humbled my intentions. My prostrations decreased as my appetites increased, and my prayers became a begrudging routine rather than sincere tears of repentance poured out unto God. For me, this Lent was too often defined by Pharisaic observance rather than Publican penance. But throughout it all, the mercy of God remained unchanged, and the love of Christ lifted me from every fall and every failure.
During Great Lent, I discovered that many of my dear friends and Christian brothers were experiencing tremendous difficulties in their lives. Health issues, family problems, financial woes, damaged relationships, and spiritual crises seemed to be taking a toll on many people. Suffering is the ubiquitous companion of life, and to learn to suffer is one of the great lessons of Lent- although most certainly, I have yet to master this lesson myself.
We will suffer, and this is an unavoidable reality of human existence. Suffering comes in many forms and for many reasons. Often, we manufacture our own suffering through sin and spiritual disobedience. But sometimes we suffer due to the evil of others or because of the cruel and capricious circumstances of life. However, we tend to forget that Our Lord has actually called us to suffer. To embrace suffering is a holy calling, a divine imperative, and the only path to eternal life. For what does Christ say in St. Luke 9:23? “If any man will come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
And is not the path of suffering the narrow gate through which we enter into the kingdom of heaven? Again, Our Lord says in St. Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to destruction, and many enter therein. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and only a few find it.”
As hard as we may try, we cannot evade suffering. It will always seek us out. A man on fire who tries to escape the flames by running only makes the flames increase. Likewise, the more we run from suffering, the greater our suffering becomes. And even though some may actually appear to have escaped suffering in this life, assuredly they shall not escape it in the next.
Therefore, let us realize that it is better to take up our cross and carry it than to have it thrust upon us. It is a mystical paradox that when we choose to take up our cross, we experience the peace of God. For the Christ who calls us to bear our cross daily is also the Christ who says, “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [St. Matthew 11:28-30]
Sometimes we curse our cross and seek to cast its burden from our weary shoulders. At times we would gladly accept the consequences of sin over the agonizing journey of spiritual struggle. But we must cling to our cross. And even when we do cast it aside from time to time, we must be quick to pick it back up again. And even if we have abandoned our cross and fled headlong towards the horizon of indulgent passions, let us turn back like the prodigal son and run with repentance to the Cross of Our Lord. For although we cast our own cross aside every day, Our Savior endured His Cross to the very end. Therefore, it is the certainty of His Cross that enables us to pick up our own cross again and again, regardless of how often we sin, how often we fall, or how often we lay our crosses on the ground and say, “Enough.”
St. John Chrysostom says that Judas would most certainly have been saved if he had simply not given up hope. For Peter denied Christ three times, and yet St. Peter is the very rock upon which Our Lord established His apostolic Church. And the man who thrust the lance into Our Lord’s side as He was dying upon the cross was to later repent and become a Saint. His name is St. Longinus. Also, according to Ethiopian Tradition, Pontius Pilate himself was converted at the tomb of Christ, and eventually became a martyr for the Faith. Today, he is considered a Saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
So again, this encourages us to cling to our cross, to persevere in the spiritual fight, and to never jettison the divine gift of repentance. We do not need to seek suffering, for suffering is inevitable; rather we need only to embrace it. And we must recognize that God has granted us the ability to choose our suffering to some degree. Will we suffer for pride, or for humility? Will we suffer for selfishness, or for service to others. Will we suffer for wickedness, or for righteousness? Will we suffer for the world, or for the kingdom? Will we suffer for sin, or will we suffer for Christ? As Saint Peter writes, “It is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” [I Peter 3:17]
So the simple message that I wish to impart during glorious season in the life of our Orthodox Christian Faith is this: Cling to your cross! Embrace your spiritual struggle. And most of all, never abandon hope. Whatever trials you are experiencing - whatever heartaches, disappointments, doubts, sins, temptations, oppressions, and torments you may be facing- simply cling to your cross. And know that because Our Lord endured His Cross, we too are able to endure ours.
We struggle, not to earn the love of God – for His love is ever extended to us unconditionally – but rather we struggle to enter more deeply into His divine presence. The more we struggle, the more we bear our own cross, the more we endure the trials of life with forbearance, faith, and forgiveness, then the more we shall experience the mystical depth of His divine grace, His unfailing mercy, and His ineffable love.
This is the season of hope. For our glorious Christian Faith hinges upon these three words: He Is Risen! Therefore, as long as we don’t quit, then we cannot lose; for Christ has indeed saved us. Thus, let us cling to life and cling to hope. Let us exalt the Cross of Christ in our minds, and let us fill our hearts with the hope and assurance of the empty tomb. And let us always know that if we cling to our cross, we shall in time rise to eternal life with Christ.
Wishing everyone a joyous and blessed Pascha season!
Glory be to the Father,
Glory be to the Son,
Glory be to the Holy Spirit, One God:
Who Has brought us out of the darkness and into the Light
Selam,Gebre Menfes Kidus
From the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom:If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness!