Following Christ Through Cities and Deserts
Sermon preached by Cassandra Chamallas on Sunday, March 19, 2023
Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God; Amen
I’d like to start by thanking Fr Antony and Teva for inviting me to be a part of this year’s women’s month series. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been both a parishioner at St. Mary’s and a second, third, and fourth grade Sunday School teacher here for about two and a half years now. Perhaps you’ll be willing to calibrate your expectations for the next few minutes knowing that my usual Sunday audience has a median age of around nine…
This year we have heard Teva speak about her pilgrimage through seminary and onto her PhD in theology. She spoke of the disciples, the prophets, and our journey to salvation starting with the act of, and prayers during, baptism. She asked us to reflect upon the call to “Come and See”, particularly through the Lenten season with our increases in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Next, Andrea spoke about visiting a monastery in Romania on the Feast of Epiphany, her pilgrimage to the Orthodox Church, and our ability to acknowledge the sacred in all things at all times. She spoke of Jesus healing the paralytic and reminded us that Christ sees us for all we are and encouraged us to draw near Christ for the strength to rise up and walk forward in our spiritual journeys.
As the Church so nicely does, the themes of each Sunday in Lent, and the reflections offered by Teva and Andrea, are designed to build upon each other, meet us where we are, and offer direction for the way forward. So, where are we today, on this the third Sunday of Lent? We begin the middle two weeks of Great Lent with the Sunday of the Cross. The Cross of course is a symbol of so much for us as Orthodox Christian’s. Among other things it is both the instrument of Christ’s earthy demise and the path to his salvific resurrection. From a practical standpoint, during the coming weeks the newness of increased fasting, prayer, and services may start to wear off and the temptations of the world may be increasingly distracting.
In today's Epistle reading from Hebrews, chapter 4 verse 15, Paul reminds us “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is not intended to shame us for our own weaknesses, they are unavoidable elements of our humanity, but instead to encourage us to turn to Christ, who understands us and our struggles. This is followed by Jesus’ convicting statement in today’s Gospel reading from Mark chapter 8 verse 34, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” While there is much that can, and has been, said about the prophetic nature of his statement, today I am going to ask you all to reflect on what this call might mean to us as Orthodox Christians living in America in 2023.
I grew up in the Orthodox Church and I have always loved the sacred spaces in our buildings. There is truly something special about entering into “God’s House”, being surrounded by icons, candles, and incense, knowing that we are in fact surrounded by the Saints and the Choirs of Angels, being able to approach the Chalice and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. But I am also often overwhelmed by the presence of God outside of these doors. In acts of kindness by strangers, in the small miracles that happen around us every day, in the majesty of nature. In particular I enjoy retreating to the coast so that I can pray alongside the ocean. I’ve often thought that the ocean’s edge may be where I am mostly easily able to feel God’s presence. So it was perhaps a little surprising, at least to myself, that when I began to reflect on today’s Gospel and the theme of pilgrimage that my mind almost immediately turned instead to the desert.
In my twenties I had the blessing of participating in three pan-Orthodox Young Adult Pilgrimages, the second of which was to the Holy Land. Near the end of our time together our group found ourselves crossing on foot through a checkpoint in southern Israel into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. On the other side of the border we loaded onto a bus headed further south, our destination, St Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest continuously operated monastery in the world, home to what many believe to be the Burning Bush encountered by Moses. For a time we drove along the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Aqaba but before long we were surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see. It certainly wasn’t the sand I grew up knowing along the Atlantic Ocean and it wasn’t the sand of the Old Western films full of cacti and tumbleweed, no, this was the sand of science fiction films, it was as desolate as it was beautiful. At some point our guide decided to pull the bus over and let us stretch our legs. There were no “rest stops” in the area, just dunes and a bit of rock that had not yet been worn away by wind, sand and time. We ambled around a bit, posed for pictures, and at some point I remember turning away from the bus and my friends and staring unobstructed into the desert. The sky was incredibly blue and I cannot remember seeing a single cloud. I wondered if we were the only living things around for miles. I felt small and alone before feeling a sense of holiness in that place. For the first time I could perhaps understand the actions of the desert fathers and mothers. These giants of our collective church history who turned away from civilization and willingly pursued God in some of the least hospitable places on earth. Maybe, when everything that we are used to surrounding ourselves with is stripped away, we can more easily feel the closeness between us and God.
There is definitely something powerful and spiritually edifying about a place so absent of distraction. The reminder to set aside time to sit undisturbed together with God is certainly a lesson that we know to be both beneficial and often lacking, in our modern times, and perhaps throughout history - are we not, after all, each Sunday, instructed and admonished in the cherubic hymn to, “set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all”? The desert is a harsh place, the obvious lack of distraction also holds a lack of life sustaining resources. Reverend Dr. John Chryssavgis tells us that
"The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God."
"Living for God"? Is that not what Jesus is asking us to do when he tells those around him, and all of us who hear those words so many generations later, to “take up our cross and follow him”?
Very few of us will be called to work out our salvation in the desert. Instead, we will follow Christ’s calling in cities and suburbs, often surrounded by comfort and convenience. We will do so each with our own crosses, our own trials and tribulations, and tempted by messages that making more money, having nicer possessions, gaining more earthly glory will make our lives better, easier. We might be tempted to ask why Jesus, who knows the difficulties of humanity, asks us to deny ourselves at all? I think it is perhaps precisely because we can have almost anything we want with a few clicks that we must build up the capacity to practice the self discipline of denial, an act that is so unavoidable in the desert, so that we have the strength to say NO to that which is not to our benefit, and so that we have the endurance to carry our crosses on our own earthly pilgrimage. It is actually through denial that we have the opportunity to dislodge that which encumbers us and find respite from weariness. If you’re not convinced, just think ahead to the joy that we feel during Liturgy on Holy Saturday and the Pascal Liturgy in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We have the blessing to not do this alone. Instead we move forward with the guidance of the church and alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as, and so importantly, with Christ, who asks us to follow Him. To walk his walk yes, but also to stay close to Him, because HE is our strength and our refuge. Have courage and know that through Him all our burdens are bearable. No matter what cross you carry or the path that your spiritual pilgrimage takes you on, I can think of no better way to conclude than borrowing from the words we hear again and again throughout the Liturgy, “Let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” Amen.