The Words and Word of God that Heal


Sermon preached by Sarah Byrne-Martelli, DMin, as part of 2020 Antiochian Women’s Month at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross

Christ is in our midst!

For Antiochian Women’s Month, our homilists have explored the words of Christ that renew, teach, and forgive. This week, I am focusing on Christ’s words that heal. There are 10 people here this morning, more than 6 feet apart, and I’m hoping there are many more of you “out there.” This is an unusual Lent. Everything is different. In this time of isolation, our normal means of connection, like touch, hugs, sharing the kiss of peace, even just standing near each other, have been suspended from our lives. We don’t know how long this will last. But what we do have right now is words. Now more than ever, we are called to remember the healing power of words, especially words of prayer, words of connection. This connection is given life through the One who connects us at the deepest level – Christ, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. I am comforted that our has faith survived through countless times of persecution and isolation when churches were closed. Our distance is physical now, but our hearts are closer than ever, as we draw near to God with prayer.

Today is the Sunday of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, the mid-point of Lent. During a normal Lent, the Cross is placed among us for veneration. It is a powerful exhortation to continue faithfully on the road toward Holy Week and Pascha. We sing today’s hymn: “Before thy cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify.”

In one sense, the cross is a symbol of grief and pain, of the torture and execution of Jesus. And yet we sing: “Through the cross, joy has come into the world, let us ever bless the Lord!” What is this joy? The joy of the cross is the gift of new life, through Christ’s resurrection on the third day. We actually sing words of praise to the cross: we call it an “invincible weapon of peace,” a “light to those in darkness.” We pray aloud, “With love inspired by God, we embrace you, O desire of all the world.” Hear these healing words! This seeming incongruity – of sorrow and joy, of grief and hope – gives us pause. Now more than ever, may these words fully into us, opening us to the power of God that enlivens all creation. “Through the cross, joy has come into the world!”

I am the Palliative Care chaplain at Mass General Hospital, and I spend my days counseling and praying alongside patients and families facing serious illness, death, and grief. I recently cared for a patient, whom I’ll call Johnny, who suffered from multiple serious illnesses along with intermittent delirium. He was besieged with periods of yelling incoherently and thrashing about. It was distressing to witness; I can only imagine what it was like within Johnny’s mind and heart. The team was working diligently to manage his symptoms with medication and compassion.

When I visited Johnny, I was able to engage him for only a few snippets of conversation before he would commence flinging about and crying out, saying, “Help me! Help me!” My chaplaincy skills were put to the test; it was difficult to know what to do next. Johnny was Catholic, and so I offered to pray with him. I didn’t know how it would be received in light of his delirium. He said, “Yes! I don’t know. Yes. Help me!” He closed his fearful eyes.

Christ has given us healing words for moments like this. I offered the Lord’s Prayer, as Christ taught us. I added my own prayers that Johnny would be surrounded by God’s comfort and the peace that surpasses understanding. I said, “Amen.” Johnny was silent. His eyes remained closed. I waited. And waited. I stood there. My mind spun in the silence. This was puzzling. Did I somehow knock him unconscious with my prayer? Was he asleep? I recalled the adage from my chaplaincy training, “Don’t just do something…stand there!” It was strangely silent. After a few awkward minutes, Johnny reached up, made the sign of the cross, and said, “Amen.” He opened his eyes and said, “Thank you, Sarah.” What? He had been praying the whole time? In the silence? I was stunned.

Hear the words of our Lord: “Whosoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” We all bear our personal crosses, and perhaps they feel even more burdensome these days. But even more so, to take up one’s cross means to trust God’s assurance that God is with us, in everything. God is with us, in our brave words of prayer. God is with us, in our silence and isolation, our puzzlement, our waiting. God is with us: present, alive, moving and healing in ways we may not yet understand.

To take up one’s cross means to see our death in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Venerating the cross today is not mere remembrance, but embodied participation in the body of Christ: walking up, prostrating down, and lifting our faces to the cross to give thanks and glory. I encourage you to be creative and do this practice this at home today. When you make the sign of the cross, whether alone or with others, you are instantly connected in body, mind, and spirit to all those who do the same.

In fact, the cross is where God speaks to us His most powerful healing words. As Christ awaited His death, he said, “It is finished.” When he says, “It is finished,” it doesn’t simply mean it’s the end of the story. It means that it’s the total accomplishment of everything. Everything now is fulfilled! Every ounce of suffering, every fear, every pain, every bit of brokenness is made whole. Isolation gives way to communion. Despair gives way to joy. God has accomplished everything, and death is overthrown. And Christ’s words give way to silence. Fr. Tom Hopko notes, the “silent depth of the Cross, the silence of God, which is more eloquent than any word, speaks to our silence, the silence within us, in order that we can then understand and grasp and live the deepest mysteries of God.”  In this silence, we learn how to bear our personal crosses, and we follow the example of Christ.

Johnny’s silence was the deepest prayer. Even amidst his delirium, his fears, his utter disconnection from life as he knew it, he managed to pray. Our shared words of prayer gave way to silence. I was discombobulated watching him, feeling uncertain, feeling off kilter. I was waiting. And out of that holy silence came the peace that only God can give.

St Ephraim the Syrian offers us a wonderful way to understand the Cross. He describes how the Tree of Life – the tree in the Garden of Eden – goes way down into the depths of the earth, and then, the wood emerges up out of the ground to form the wood of cross. We sing in our funerals: “You are our God, who descended into Hades, and loosed the bonds of those who were there.” The wood of the cross redeems Adam and Eve, and Johnny, and all of us from the grave. St Ephraim says the birds hop for joy in Paradise. What an image. Think of that when you see the birds outside your window. Even when we are stuck in isolation, all creation rejoices!

Today, we are in communion at the foot of the cross. May this most unusual Lent help us build a small chapel inside our hearts. May we pray without ceasing, hearing the healing words of our Lord, and knowing Christ is present, both in His words and in His holy, life-giving silence. Amen.