What does it all mean anyway? This is a question that comes up at various times in one”s life. A High School student who is struggling over math equations or science problems may throw up his hands in despair -- "What does it all mean anyway?" He asks. "Do I really need algebra or chemistry in the real world? Why am I learning this anyway? Just to get into college, so I can get a job, so I can make money, so I can get old and die? What does it all mean anyway?"
The middle-aged adult who is struggling to pay bills, keep up with the demands of two kids and a dog, who thinks about retirement, who is stuck in a dead-end job, throws up her hands and wonders, "What does it all mean anyway? I have a hard time getting through today, who can think about tomorrow?" He or she looks around and wonders, "I”m at the halfway point of life and what have I accomplished, what do I have to show for it?" And sometimes, unsatisfied with the answers, goes and does something impulsive, like buy a fast car, or something destructive, like having an affair.
And the senior citizen, whose life consists of doctors appointments and medical treatments, who tries to live on a fixed income, who mourns the death of a spouse, who once had an important job but now struggles to care for his basic needs, throws up his hands and cries, "What does it all mean anyway?" There is little to look forward to -- children and grandchildren in far away cities, friends and peers dying off, worrying about how to take care of a house that is now too big.
And finally for the person at the end of life, with days or perhaps hours to live, looking at their family for one last time, unable to walk or eat or enjoy any of the freedoms they have once been so accustomed to. A tear comes to their eye, "What did it all mean anyway? All the fame and fortune, I can”t take it with me."
The past few days, many have been watching the NCAA College Basketball tournament. I”m sure there were also a lot of passionate speeches offered by coaches trying to motivate their teams. How many coaches at halftime broke down their respective teams and told the players, "You”ve got to do better." How many coaches went into halftime up by a few points and told their players, "Be careful, play smart, we”re not leading by that much."
There were other coaches, who went into halftime down by a few points, who told their players, "Don”t give up, we”re not down by that much, we”re still in the game, make a few changes and we”re right back in it. Be careful, play smart, we”re not down by that much." I”m sure there were no coaches who went into halftime saying, "It”s hopeless, just play out the second half quickly so we can go home." And I”m sure there were no coaches who said, "We”re up by so much, let”s just go through the motions in the second half, quit trying."
The Sunday of the Holy Cross marks the half-way point of Great Lent. And for some, the time has been rewarding. For others challenging. And for others meaningless. For some, there is great struggle to maintain the fast, get to extra services, pray, or read the Bible. Others have come in for confession and have walked away completely renewed. And there are others who have stood on the sideline, who are just content to watch, they don”t really even want to get into the game.
So, as the coach of one Orthodox team, the priest of a parish, the half-time speech for Great Lent is pretty simple. Be careful, play smart. If you are doing well in your Christian life, be vigilant, the devil and temptation lurk around the committed Christian, ready to throw you off of your journey. If you are having a challenging Lent, keep on trying, you are halfway done.
If you are not doing well in your journey to salvation, be careful and play smart, but don”t lose heart -- you are really one confession away from getting back into the game. If you haven”t done much of anything this Lent, don”t despair, we”ve still got half of it left, plenty of time to come to an extra service, to get on your knees and start to pray, to try fasting, or to read a book of the Bible.
And if you are on the sidelines, one of those who probably read articles like this because you know what you know and you don”t want to know anymore, be careful and play smart. What does it all mean is the most important question we”ll ever answer in life, because it is what will give shape and substance, form and meaning to the whole thing. And failing to answer the question is the most foolish thing a person can ever do.
The halfway point of Lent is dedicated to the Holy Cross -- because the answer to the question, "What does it all mean anyway?" is really pretty simple. Christ, through the cross and Resurrection, opened a path to paradise, closed by the fall of mankind, caused by mankind”s pride, disobedience and dishonesty. We”ll each live a finite period of time on this earth -- hopefully there will be lots of enjoyment in this life, lots of time to laugh and to play, to watch basketball games, shop at the mall, and play with the kids.
But at some point, life on this earth will end -- there will be no more basketball games, we won”t be able to take our big screen TV with us, or any of the clothes we bought at the mall, won”t even be able to take the kids and grandkids along. We”ll be at that point, with days or hours of life left, and we”ll wonder, "What did it all mean anyway?"
And then, there will be two kinds of people. Those who took the advice of Christ in the Gospel passage of the Third Sunday of Len (see: Mark 8:34-9:1) and those who didn”t. There will be some who denied themselves, took up the cross and followed, who sacrificed pride and jealousy, lust for power and ego and instead spent time preparing their souls. And these will die happy and hopefully confident, ready to see the kingdom of God coming with power and glory.
And there will be many who will not follow the advice of Christ in this morning”s Gospel -- those who were too busy to pick up the cross and follow, those who got distracted and put the cross down, those who threw is down in frustration, and those who were blinded by anger and didn”t know which way to carry it. And these will see God coming in judgment, these will not see God”s kingdom at all.
Jesus challenges each of us with the question, "for what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory with all the angels" (Mark 8:36-38)
Some are ashamed, some are too proud, some are too busy, and too many aren”t listening or just don”t care. And the news for these is change your tune, get back in the game, or when it”s all said and done, you”ll find yourselves on the outside of heaven looking in, and you”ll find the answer to the question, what did it all mean, to be a big nothing, and there will be an eternity to suffer for it.
The good news is, there is still some time left -- there is still time to get something out of this Lent, and regardless of how old you are or how hopeless you may feel, regardless of how much you”ve missed the mark or how far away you”ve become from God, there is still time to get back into the game -- all it takes is some careful planning, setting aside of some pride, and some real commitment, and you”re right back in it. Christ gave the answer, "Deny yourself and what you want, take up His cross and follow, and when you taste death, you will see the Kingdom of God coming with power."
That”s what it all means. That”s salvation and why it is important. So if you are frustrated with algebra, having a mid-life crisis, or are getting older and slowing down, the meaning of life is the same for everyone -- keep carrying the cross of Christ, stay patient, stay focused on what the Lord says is important, and you will see the salvation of our God, you will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
As we mark the halfway point of Lent with Processions dedicated to the Holy Cross, we will all gaze at the cross as it makes a journey around the church. Ask yourself, have I ever truly picked up the cross? Have I become distracted and put the cross down in my life? Have I become angry with my cross and carry it with resentment? Is the cross at the forefront of my life? Is carrying it a challenge? Does carrying it bring me joy? Do I look forward to the day I see God”s kingdom coming with power, or is this something I can”t believe in?
We”re at the halfway point of Lent -- if you feel like you are ahead in the game, be careful, play smart, keep playing hard. If you feel like you are behind, the second half begins with this procession -- be careful, play smart, get yourself back in the game. Start praying, start fasting, go to confession, make a new start, it”s not too late. It profits nothing to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul. Mastering algebra, driving a nice car and being in good health, all are good things, but none are more important than the state of our souls.
And none of them can be taken with us when our soul goes to meet the Lord. Christ, through His ministry, through His sacrifice on the cross, and through His Church, gives us the tools we need, gives us the motivation we need, gives us the hope we need, to save our souls and enter His Kingdom, and that is what it all means anyway.
Sure it means some work, sure it means some sacrifice some pride, for sure it means actually doing something about it, but the question "What does it all mean anyway?" is the most important question you”ll ever have to answer, and how you answer it, will be the most important thing you ever do. Because if your life reflects the correct answer to this question, for sure it means the greatest reward that can ever be, and an eternity to enjoy it.
Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis is the parish priest of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL and is the director of St. Stephen”s Summer Camp for the Metropolis of Atlanta.