Turning All Thoughts Toward Christ

mp3 Audio:  Fr Joseph-Turning_All_Thoughts_Toward_Christ.mp3


This sermon was preached by Father Joseph Gleason on Passion Sunday, March 29, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.

Transcribed by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services


Gospel Reading: John 8:46-59


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.

We have been in Lent for a month now – over a month. Yet, when we walk into the church today, we see a very different picture. Something has changed. The whole period of Lent is a period of fasting, and prayer, and asceticism, and repentance. Yet, when we walk in today, we see every icon, every Cross covered, veiled – veiled with violet, the color for repentance, a somber color.

The only icons not veiled are the Stations of the Cross. Everything else is covered. We walk in, and instantly, we realize that something is different; something has changed. The stakes have been raised. The ante has been lifted. Something big, something serious is about to happen.

We have entered the great and final two weeks of Lent. We have entered Passiontide. Today, the fifth Sunday in Lent, is Passion Sunday. In today’s Gospel, wicked men tried to kill Jesus. They wanted to stone Him to death, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple. He hid Himself, and as He has hidden Himself, so – with the exception for the Stations of the Cross – have we hidden the Cross, have we hidden the icon of Him.

It is fitting that where the Master is hidden, so are His servants. The icon of the Theotokos and Virgin Mary, the icons of the saints – they have all gone into hiding and we’ll not see them again until Christ rises from the dead.

Oh, the humility of an all-powerful God who does not take immediate revenge but rather hides Himself!

You may say, “what’s the big deal? Any of us could do the same. If somebody was trying to stone me to death, I’d hide myself.” That’s because you are weak. It’s because I am weak. It’s because we are in fear for our very lives.

But Jesus is God! He created the entire universe. He created those stones that they were about to throw at Him. He created the men that were about to throw the stones. When they came to attack Him, their hearts were beating because Jesus kept them beating.

If you had that kind of power, and somebody attacked you and tried to kill you, would you hide? Or would you just say, “hearts, stop beating” and be done with it? Or He could have let them throw the stones, and they could have bounced off of him without hurting Him. He could have turned them into bread before they hit Him. Then he could have fed some poor with that bread.

His hands were not tied. He was not running in fear. He knew that, even though He had come to die, He did not come to die that day. He came to lay down His life, not by being stoned but by being crucified. Stoning would have been very merciful compared to crucifixion.

Jesus wasn’t looking for the easy way out. He didn’t kill his attackers. He didn’t even take the easy way out in death and say, “hey, stoning is better than crucifixion.” Jesus took the humble path, not taking vengeance on them even while they were attacking, not seeking an easy death even though he knew that the death was coming which was so horrific on Calvary.

When he finally hung there on the Cross in Calvary, he said, “Father, forgive THEM, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Jesus was in total control. He could have beaten them that day. He could have submitted to death that day, but He chose to have mercy on them! He knew that his time for death had not yet come. So, in full control of the situation, He hid Himself. For someone who is all-powerful, that is a great testament to patience, to mercy, to love, and to humility.

The only icons not veiled are the Stations of the Cross. Throughout most of the year, we keep all the icons uncovered so that we may venerate them all. During Passiontide, the Church’s gaze turns to the path that Jesus took to the Cross and the grave.

By veiling all other icons, we remove distractions. Our attention is drawn directly to the things which Jesus suffered for our sake. This reminds us that sometimes we even have to abstain from things that are good so that we might direct our attention to that which is even higher and better.

Food is good! Yet during Lent, we abstain from good food so that we might give more attention to spiritual matters. Icons are good! Yet during Passiontide, we cover them so that we might give more attention to Christ’s death on the Cross.

Passiontide marks a shift in our focus, not only during the liturgy but also in our own personal lives at home. During the season of Lent, we greatly increase our effort in reducing our dependence on worldly pleasures. We increase our prayer through following the Stations of the Cross on Fridays, through praying the litany, as we do at various times throughout Lent and hopefully in our own home prayer life.

We increase our fasting. Throughout the year we abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, but during Lent, it is six days a week. It is throughout the week. We fast from all food whatsoever until noon. Even for lunch, we eat only a half a meal or less. Throughout Lent we abstain from all meat.

Also, if we are following Lent in its fullness, there’s less celebration during Lent and more mourning for our sins. In league with that, we reduce our traveling during Lent. We try not to take vacations during Lent.

Even in the liturgy, we wear different colors. We wear these purple colors for penance: violet, and then on Good Friday we will actually wear black.

During Lent we do all of these things to humble ourselves, to master our physical bodies, to eradicate self-deception, to remind ourselves that we are sinners, to weep for our sins seeking forgiveness and cleansing, and to defeat the passions.

Focusing on our sins that we may repent is better than doting on our own righteousness that we may boast. Yet even in this, our gazes are turned inward. Even focusing on personal sins is dangerous, for we focus on what is personal, and thus, our eyes turn in upon ourselves.

When we turn our eyes away from thoughts of our own righteousness, and gaze instead upon our sins, humility begins. When we turn our eyes away from our sins and turn our thoughts toward Christ, humility matures.

Forget your good deeds, and repent of your sins. There you will find forgiveness. Forget yourself altogether, and remember nothing but Christ. There you will find glory.

As I’ve said, Passiontide marks a shift in our focus not only during the liturgy but also in our personal lives at home. During Lent, we did all those things we just discussed, but during Passiontide, even though we continue doing our ascetic labors of fasting and prayer, we continue doing them, but we turn our thoughts even more towards Christ esteeming thoughts of Him to be of greater value than thoughts about the struggles we each are going through.

You keep fasting, but you stop thinking so much about your fasting and think more about Christ. You keep praying, but you look at the content of those prayers. Instead of them being so much about yourself, you’re focusing them on Christ and on other people.

As you pray, turn your thoughts less to yourself and more to gratitude for what Christ has done and more to the needs of others. As you fast, you will still hunger, but instead of choosing to think about the hunger, turn your thoughts towards Christ being beaten, humiliated, shamed, starved, and executed – Him doing all of this that you might live. If you contemplate the Cross, then you’re own problems will fade away into relative insignificance.

As you humble yourself, remember that thinking of yourself humbly is less humble than to forget about yourself altogether. Fill your mind not with yourself, but rather let your thoughts be focused on Christ and upon your brothers and sisters in Christ. Put yourself last! Consider every other person to be better than yourself, and treat them accordingly. “For great is the might of the Lord, but by the humble, He is glorified” (Sirach 3:20).[1]

The path to the Cross is the path to humility. You cannot follow Christ without walking towards the Cross. As Jesus Himself said in Luke 14:27, “and whosoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

There are stages in our lives that we go through, stages of growth. A little child starts out nursing and drinking from a bottle. Then they start eating solid food, but they only use their hands. Then finally, when they are old enough, you give them a spoon and a fork. When they are even older than that, you give them a knife.

So it is with us. We start out absolutely selfish, absolutely self-centered. Every thought that we have is on me, me, me. “What makes me happy? What takes away my pain? What gives me pleasure? What do I want to do?” You constantly look at your spouse, and your children, and your job, and everything in your life is means to an end to gratify yourself.

Then you meet Christ. Then you meet His Church, and you are challenged to do things that are difficult. You are challenged to do things for others. You are challenged to put other people first. You are challenged to fast, and to pray, and to have ascetic labors. But all of these challenges don’t come all at once.

At first, it is very common that, even though you realize you are a sinner, even though you realize that improvement needs to be made, your focus is still on yourself. You used to think you were a pretty good person. Then you met Christ, and you found out you weren’t. You used to think that maybe you made some mistakes here and there, but you’re not a filthy rotten sinner. Then you met Christ, and you found out that – nope! Even I, myself, am a filthy rotten sinner.

So you start trying to clean up those sins. You start trying to repent. Now, instead of focusing on what you thought was your righteousness, you are focused on your own sin. You focus on praying more. You focus on fasting. You focus on trying to read the Scriptures. You focus on trying to go to church. You focus on how you speak to other people. You focus on how you spend your money. You focus on how you spend your time. In all of these ways, you’re looking at yourself saying, “I need to get rid of this sin, and I need to get rid of that sin, and I need to get rid of this sin, and I need to get rid of that sin.” But in this whole process, you are still focused on yourself.

You are doing much, much, much better than you were before you came to Christ, before you came to the Church. It’s better to really look at yourself and to really check to see whether there are virtues that are growing, to check to see whether there are sins that you are getting rid of. From time to time we all have to do that throughout our lives, no matter how mature you get in Christ. Even that, as good as it is, is not as high as you can go.

You see, there comes a point that, moment by moment, minute by minute, hour by hour, with most of your time, you can forget about yourself entirely. You’re not thinking about your good deeds, but you’re not even really focused on your sins and how you’ve repented, because you’re not thinking about you at all.

Your thoughts are stayed on Christ. Your thoughts are stayed on your spouse. Your thoughts are stayed on your children. From morning to noon to night, you spend so much of your time thinking about Christ, working hard to serve Him, working hard to serve your spouse and your children from a heart of love, that by the end of the day, when you come to your prayers, you realize that you have some repenting to do and there are some virtues within you that are growing, but it dawns on you that throughout most of the day, you’ve hardly even thought about you at all – good or bad.

That’s the next step in humility. We know what that tastes like. We have some idea what that feels like. Not anything Christian, not anything in the Church, but just in the world, have you ever gotten so enraptured with something that you’re doing that you forget yourself entirely?

Have you ever watched a TV show from start to finish without doing any introspection or thinking of yourself at all? You are just focused on what they’re doing, on this entertainment that is flowing in.

Have you ever been playing baseball, or basketball, or volleyball, or soccer, or football, and you get so into the game that you’re playing that you don’t even think about yourself at all but are just lost in the joy of the moment?

Henry David, have you ever been out shooting your bow during target practice, and you’re just so enraptured with what you’re doing that you don’t think about anything else for a while? All you’re thinking about is just shooting that bow.

Kids, have you ever been doing work with the animals and having so much fun with the ducks, or the chickens, or the baby goats that for a half-hour or hour that’s all you’re focused on, and you don’t think about yourself at all?

We know what that feeling is like. We know what it is like to be so enraptured in something, so lost in something, so fully consumed with something that we don’t have good thoughts about ourselves; we don’t have bad thoughts about ourselves; in fact, we don’t have any thoughts about ourselves because our entire being is focused outside of ourselves on some other thing or on some other person. That is what Christ calls us to.

Repentance is necessary. We need to look into our own hearts. We need to ask Christ to look into our hearts. We need to fast. We need to pray. We need to do all these things. But if Christ is truly Who we seek, if humility is truly what we seek, if love is truly what we seek, then we will never be satisfied fully as long as our gaze is turned upon ourselves, as long as we are still looking in the mirror. If you are looking in the mirror, and you see something absolutely beautiful. If you look in the mirror, and you see, “I am ugly with sin. I need to repent,” then you are starting with humility.

You repent, and you repent, and you repent, but at some point, you turn away from the mirror altogether and just look in the face of Jesus. Then you turn to Russ, and you see the face of Jesus. Then you turn to Katie, and you see the face of Jesus. Then you turn to Betty, and you see the face of Jesus. You look into the eyes of your children, and you see the face of Jesus. You look at your spouse, and you see the face of Jesus. You are so enraptured by the face of Christ that you forget yourself entirely. You go into worship of the Lord. By serving your wife, by serving your husband, by serving your children, you serve Christ. You see something far more beautiful than you ever saw when you were standing in front of that mirror.

As the saying goes, true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.


NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] In Orthodox Study Bible (SAAS), Wisdom of Sirach 3:19


This sermon was preached by Father Joseph Gleason on Passion Sunday, March 29, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.

Transcribed by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services provides full service secretarial support, including  transcription and publishing services, to Orthodox clergy and parish communities.

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Fr. Joseph Gleason, Humility, John 8:46-59, Lent, Passiontide. Bookmark the permalink.

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