Veneration of the Holy Cross
3rd Sunday of Lent
March 23, 2014
Last year the American Psychological Association and the, American Institute of Stress, NY, presented research that said the following: 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. 73% of Americans regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. 48% feel that their stress has increased in the past 5 years. 76% cited money and work as their leading causes of stress. 48% reported lying awake in bed at night due to stress. (http://www.statisticbrain.com/stress-statistics/). The report listed the seven primary causes of stress as: Job Pressure, Money, Health, Relationships, Poor Nutrition, Media Overload, Sleep Deprivation.
"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Lord speaks to us in words directed to His disciples almost 2000 years ago. His call may seem bittersweet: He does not promise to take away life’s difficulties. Indeed what He seems to say is that He wants us to assume more stress, not less, in our lives.
"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The first and most challenging interpretation of these words is that we are called to take up the Gospel and apply it to the ultimate degree. When I think of this, the people that come to mind are the Apostles, who left homes and families and ultimately lost their lives to proclaim the Gospel. Or I think about people such as St. Anthony or St. Mary of Egypt, who went out to live in the desert for decades with no money and only the clothing on their backs, who in effect became totally dependent on God’s mercy day by day.
Then there is another level at which people can take up their cross and follow Jesus. This is the level at which you and I live. It involves us rethinking the way that we view the stressors in our lives. Everyone has a cross to bear- some heavier than others. They do not compare to the Lord’s cross, but they hurt nonetheless. We bear some crosses unwillingly; others, voluntarily. Those that we bear unwillingly might include illness, the loss of a job, an insufferable relative, etc. Those that we bear voluntarily might include the care of an elderly parent, financial support of the poor and of the church, the price of being honest when cheating is more convenient, etc.
St. Dorotheos of Gaza once said that things happen for one of two reasons- because of God’s benevolence or with God’s permission. Some things happen because they are good, and they come from God’s love for us. In the words of St. James (1:17) – paraphrased in our Liturgy- “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights.” The others that come our way come by God’s permission. These are the challenges that come to us not as a punishment or revenge, but rather because some good may come from them. Perhaps they teach us patience; perhaps they prevent an even greater evil from happening; perhaps we pay for our sins now rather than later.
It is not remarkable to say that God loves His creation. What distinguishes Christianity is its belief that God loves His creation so much that He chose to become one of us, to live as we live and to share our sufferings, our stresses, so that He might lift us up to become like Him. God assumed stress so that He might lift us up. This is the message of the Cross that we honor today.
So the stresses that affect you and me can be viewed as part and parcel of life’s ascent to better, more perfect life. As Dr. M. Scott Peck wrote, “Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it-- then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters” (The Road Less Traveled, p. 15).
Taking up one’s cross involves simply accepting that the stresses in my life are there with God’s permission and for my benefit, if only I accept them in faith. And then instead of grumbling that we have this or that affliction, we thank God and strive to grow closer to Him.