Surrounded by what matters most

At Liturgy last Sunday, I caught site of a father holding his infant daughter in his arms. As I blessed the congregation, he made the sign of the cross over himself and his daughter, sweeping his arms over his little girl to touch his forehead, his chest, and his two shoulders. It was a simple gesture, so filled with tenderness and love.

Immediately, I thought of a short prayer from our Orthodox tradition: “Surround us, Lord, with the power of your precious cross, and protect us from all evil.”

From the cross, Jesus stretches out his arms to embrace all of us with his co-suffering love. He ascends the cross to take upon himself all of the shame and pain, all the remorse and alienation, that our sins stir up. Christ takes up all of this so that we do not have endure it ourselves.

Jesus calls his crucifixion his great moment of glory. The cross was once as symbol of ultimate shame and defeat. Romans used crucifixion to send a clear message: anyone who tries to resist the Roman Empire will pay dearly for his folly.

Through Christ, the message of the cross is radically transformed: anyone who runs to Christ for forgiveness will receive the reward of wise and faithful stewards in God’s kingdom. When we are surrounded by the power of the Cross we are embraced by what matters most in life–Christ’s co-suffering, unconditional, life-giving love.

Not all sorrow is equal

In the Christian tradition not all sorrow is equal. So, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul makes the above distinction between “godly sorrow” and “the sorrow of the world.” We can understand this distinction in a couple of ways.

The first way deals with what we are sorrowful for. Worldly sorrow is the anxiety over losing, or not having, material things. We convince ourselves that these things will makes us happy, that they will fill the void we feel inside of us. When we don’t have them, we grieve because we want them. When we have them, we grieve for fear of losing them. Inevitably, we are sorrowful because we discover that, in reality, they were a major disappointment, doing nothing to feed the hunger of our hearts.

Godly sorrow is aimed at the state of our broken world, the pain and injustice in it. This sorrow begins with recognizing my own brokenness, what Jesus calls being “poor in spirit.” Godly sorrow moves us to repentance and fills our hearts with compassion for the struggles of others.

Another way of distinguishing between godly and worldly sorrow is that they have different foundations. Worldly sorrow is founded upon the hopelessness and eventual despair of believing that what’s gone is gone. End of story.

Godly sorrow is founded upon the new life promised to us in Jesus’ Good News of salvation. This sorrow produces repentance because it is undergirded by the hope in something better. The Prodigal Son was sorrowful as he was languishing in the pig pen. Knowing that there was a home for him to go back to, he turned that sorrow into the motivation to put the pig pen behind him and return to his father.

In Christ we discover the holy paradox of gaining everything through our willingness to give it all up. Godly sorrow says that, as difficult as my current situation is, it can be a healing and saving experience. There is always hope, always the promise of turning our tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Today, I will make a start

This quote from the founder of Christian monasticism really resonates with me. In spite of our best intentions, our spiritual journey is full of stops and starts.

One day a man was visiting a monastery and he asked one of the monks, “What do you people do all day?”

The monk replied, “We fall down and we get up. Then, we fall down and we get up. After that, we fall down and we get up.”

On one hand, the monk was talking about the prostrations that the brothers made during their prayers. At another level, he was describing an experience common to all believers as they struggle to live according to Christ’s teachings.

We all fall into sin. However, we don’t have to stay there. Before us is always the possibility of rising up again by God’s grace and mercy.

“Today, I will make a start.” Every day brings the promise of a new beginning. It’s up to me to choose to see it that way, and proceed accordingly.