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)
Many Christians believe that Christ was forced to be crucified as a mandated payment for our sins. The Orthodox Church does not teach this. If Christ did not ascend the Cross with total free will, then He did not act with love. God does love us, in fact enough, that He freely chose the Cross as a sign of His love for us. In return, He invites us to freely choose our cross as a sign of our love for Him.
The Cross represents the juxtaposition between life and death. Our willingness to embrace the struggle of Christian life is expressed in free will. The struggle isn’t in how we choose to use our free will, but in our willingness to allow others to use their free will. This is the true expression of love.
God loves us so much that He allows us to freely choose the cross as He did. He never forces us to love Him in return. What is truly a struggle is for us to allow others the same free will that God allows. If God does not force them, how can we? If God allows us to embrace Him, or to reject Him, how can we force others to embrace Christ? The invitation by God begins with the words, “Whoever desires to come after Me…”
It is a good reminder halfway through Great Lent that this journey is freely offered by God, and must be freely accepted by us. If your Great Lenten journey feels forced, then you have forgotten the gift of free will. It won’t make the journey easier, in terms of the fast, but it will make it more fruitful. Let’s face it, we all tend to be willing to struggle more when we choose the struggle rather than are forced.