The Sunday of the Holy Cross

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark 8:34-38; 9:1

The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?

For what can a man give in return for his life?

For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.


As Father Ernesto and Deacon Simeon were called to other parishes this weekend, I was asked to give the homily to today’s Gospel Reading. Deacon Simeon specified that he’d like for me to talk to you about Romanian elders, such as Father Cleopa, about their spirit, and what it meant to me (as an orthodox in an orthodox land) to be living around monasteries and saints. He reminded me to talk about the time I met him when I was a child at Durau monastery and so on.

When he asked me that I didn’t know how I would integrate his request with today’s reading, as I am one that likes homilies that help me understand more about the Gospel passages.

But then I read today’s Gospel, and it didn’t take me more than two seconds to see how they so perfectly fit together.

And again, I felt the serendipity of God’s footsteps.

So how could we summarize today’s message in one word?


Let’s take each verse and try to understand it more in depth:

If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 

Where does this Cross come from into the conversation? What does Christ mean? Is that something that He will do, and we are to follow?

This passage is before the Transfiguration on the Mount Tabor, which will take place in Mark 9. In this chapter, Jesus was telling His listeners that He will need to go to Jerusalem and be sacrificed. Him dying on the cross is not explicitly mentioned in any of the verses prior to Mark 8. As this verse foreshadows the crucifixion, the following verse foreshadows Pentecost – where through the Holy Spirit we are baptized, dying as Jesus did, to be resurrected followers of Christ.

For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. – we hear the same wisdom from the Old Testament – the first will be the last, the last the first, the poor rich and the rich men poor. For the one who focuses on the material, he will go where the thief and rot takes over his wealth, whereas those who give up everything for Christ and His message (meaning those who follow His steps and act as He acted – again faith lives in the Christian that does the actions of Christ) they will live.

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? – you were redeemed at a price. Your life is not your material body, but the immortal soul. Your body dies, but if your soul dies with you, then you are the Prodigal Son – you are dead to the Father, unless you decide to come back and run to him and ask to be his servant, give up all your requests for anything in front of God, and, despite Him asking nothing from you, God will give you His ring, His kiss, His embrace, His clothes, one of His many rooms that He prepared for you in His house. But none of those can be achieved by you, earned by you, and especially the Joy of Theosis can never be bought through the pleasures of the world.

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed… – this is an eternal generation – from the dawn of Man, to 33 A.D., to 2023 A.D. And yet God reduces it to one generation – in our perception 30 years. An infinity passes in the wink of God’s eye. God does not plea to be heard, God is. There are those who are with Him and those who are against Him. Those who will save their earthly lives, those who will enjoy the sins of time and be ashamed of ever having thought of Christ. They are ashamed of Christ because of the suffering that they endure as sacrifices to this fallen world.

…when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” And He said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power. – Christ will come at the end of this sinful Generation, in the full glory of Heavens and all who have not followed Him and carried their cross will be cast aside, whereas those who endured the false persecutions of this world for His name will be saved and although asleep in the Lord, will have never tasted death.

Where else do we hear this exact message?

In the Beatitudes (that we just sang)

The last part again talks about martyrdom, and being like the prophets – those filled with the Holy Spirit:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. – the same discussion of reward

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. – the same discussion about not being ashamed of Christ and suffering the evils of this world for Him

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – despite the persecutions, rejoice and be glad – the same reference to saving one’s life, one’s soul.

So how do the two meet – Cleopa and the Sunday of the Holy Cross? A man and sacrifice? What does this have to do with Cleopa or the Romanian elders? Was Cleopa – his birth name Constantin Ilie – a Martyr? Were he and those like him martyrs? Were they prophets and persecuted as such?

For Cleopa, particularly in the sense that requires imprisonment and death, no. In the sense that requires continuous sacrifice, denying himself, giving his all for Christ and sharing the message of His Gospel to people during the totalitarian times of the 20th century? In the sense of being spat upon, hunted down, persecuted on Christ’s account? Yes.

Yes, he was.

Two years from now he will be canonized in the Holy Romanian Orthodox Church, as he endured the suffering, and the persecutions as a contemporary prophet.

He is part of the Holy Martyrs of Communism, those who proclaimed Christ despite all the suffering they endured, and through this bloody baptism they became saints.

Cleopa talked about martyrdom, about sacrifice, and he had a homily for this specific Sunday of the Cross. I will share with you a few fragments:

Then Jesus says: “What will a man give in return for his soul” (Mark 8, 37). Hear, my brethren, how great and immeasurable is our soul, and to what honor and esteem has our Savior Jesus Christ Himself raised it? And if so, who will ever be able to resist this truth? Holy Scripture often calls man “soul”. Here is what Genesis says: “And the souls that entered with Jacob into Egypt and that came out of his loins were sixty-six souls in all, besides the wives of his sons” (Genesis 46, 26). This is why the Holy Scripture calls man “soul”. And why does the Holy Scripture call man “soul”? The answer is this: for the great value that the soul has in relation to the body. But can one call the soul “man”? No, man can be called a soul, but the soul cannot be called a man. Because the soul has an unseen nature, and the body has a seen and felt nature, and only when they unite in a single pose is it called man. But neither the soul is called man without the body, nor the body without the soul. For man is a united hypostasis of two natures, soul and body.

Cleopa then goes on to explain that the soul of the man knows the works of the archangels. Its memory comes from God, and when enlightened by the Holy Spirit, it can spread the Gospel and all its healing and redeeming teachings. A clean and virtuous soul burns the devils with its penitence and humility. The soul guides the man’s virtues, casts away the storms of doubts, and places all thoughts to align with God’s commands and do his will.

The soul is like a king that rules over all the senses and earthly passions. It is like a throne for the Trinity to sit inside the mind and heart of a man, when he is cleansed by passions through love and repentance.

When a man’s soul is perfected, it is like the seraphim, filled with the burning love for God.

For all these attributes, today’s gospel is placed in the middle of the fast. Because we now have time to repent, to confess, to make peace with God and everyone else. To receive the Holy Eucharist, which is the greatest gift the Savior can give us on this Earth.

Let us think how we live, how we straighten our path, so that we can gain redemption and escape the eternal suffering. That is why the Devil hurts us so much with all his temptations and devils, so that he can snatch our souls and enslave us by his cancer and not achieve salvation, but eternal punishment.

How can we clean our souls, conscience, heart, and body from the sins that are pressing on us?

First, we need to truthfully repent, with tears and Eucharist.

Second, we need to pray, with reverence and patience, by coming regularly to church. Read the psalms, as they squeeze tears out of the most hardened hearts. Read the Akathist of the Theotokos and do your metanoias and the Jesus prayer as you are able.

Third, we need to fast, as it strengthens our prayer. Fast as you are able and try on Wednesdays and Fridays to not eat or drink from the time you wake up and until noon.

Fourth is being merciful. Give help with a kind heart to all that ask. Help each other to go to church, to persevere in prayer, to allay the sufferings of those in pain, the sick and saddened. Do all these with love, as God is love and His love cleanses your souls.

Cleopa then ends by saying:

Today, on the third Sunday of Great Lent, called “of the Holy Cross”, as you can see, the Holy Cross is taken out with great reverence in the middle of the church. Why is the Cross taken out in the middle of Lent in the church for worship, where does it stay for a week? It is taken out to strengthen and embolden us in the hardships of the fast, so that we can go through it usefully to the end. Because looking at the Holy Cross and thinking about the passions of the Lord, we forget the troubles of life and receive strength on the path of salvation.

My brothers, it is the power of the Cross of Christ in the world! The cross brought us salvation and reconciliation with God. The Cross broke the gates of hell through the Resurrection. The cross opened heaven to us and conquered death. The cross crushes the devils and casts them out from among us. The cross is the world’s salvation ladder that takes us up to heaven. Let us ascend to God on the ladder of the Cross. Let us reconcile and love each other through the sacrifice of the Holy Cross. Let us force ourselves to carry our cross with humility, with patience and with the hope of salvation. Let us not despair in sickness, in suffering and in the multitude of troubles of life. Let us think that all our fathers, forefathers and saints suffered and carried their cross with patience and joy to the end.

So let us also, my brothers, strengthen ourselves in the hardships of fasting. Before us walks Christ Himself, the Savior of the world, with the Cross behind Him. Let us also follow Him with faith and virtue, working day and night for the salvation of our souls. And arriving with joy at Pascha, let us kneel in front of the Cross and sing together: “We worship your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and magnify Your Holy Resurrection!” Amen.

How beautifully Cleopa explains. How calm and collected, despite all that he had gone through…

I met Cleopa in 1994 when I was 9, on my summer vacation. For 3 weeks my mom and I went to stay at Durau monastery of the Annunciation (another serendipitous fragment as this month we celebrate Annunciation) and climb Ceahlau mountain – the Romanian Athos. I remember that I would play outside with other kids from the families that were also visiting and sometimes, the Priest would come and tell me to kick the soccer ball more quietly.

I remember the nuns dressed in black, quietly gliding across the courtyard, always walking with a purpose, always doing, unfazed, in prayer, and at peace. The silence inside the courtyard was only broken by the talanton, the bells, the rustling of leaves, birdsongs, and the shuffling of feet. Inside the church, when there were no services, you would feel a deeper silence, surrounded by the icon painted walls, looking up as a small child to the images of God, his mother, the angels and saints. Sometimes a nun would enter and read in whisper certain prayers and clean the church. Otherwise, all was a full and peaceful silence, infused with the smell of incense and beeswax.

The priest and abbess would invite the visitors for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to their trapeza. Although it was during the Dormition Fast, I was amazed with how good their food was and I fell in love with it, and the peace and simplicity of their living. At that point, as a kid, I felt that those things that I was feeling were natural and common everywhere. The younger you are, the closer you are to God.

Durau was where I had my first confession and Eucharist, where I heard the talanton and got to ring the bells in the bell tower along with the nuns.

The nuns would take me to chant and sing with them for Vespers, and I’d struggle because the letters were in a weird font, and the words were many times in old Romanian. The symbols for music were psaltic and not western, and I had to listen and repeat what they said, all the while trying to keep my balance on multiple pillows that they’d stack for me, as I couldn’t reach the stand very well.

So one Friday my mom, a few nuns, the priest, and I were the only ones in the church for Vespers. I was struggling to chant and sing along with them when a group of men came through the main door.

As Vespers ended, we went to meet the group:

The Romanian patriarch from that time was there, along with the Metropolitan of Moldova (today’s Patriarch), the Bishop of Roman, the Bishop of Cluj, the Archbishop of US and Canada, and Father Cleopa – the one most humbly dressed, with his plain black robe and shepherd’s vest, as if he just came from preaching to his flock in the meadows of Ceahlau. The group came to see how the Monastery was being restored, and visit the International Pastoral Center being finalized on the Monastery grounds. (A year later, Bartholomew the 1st, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and 7 other patriarchs would be in the same place to bless the center and open it to the public).

I don’t remember much about what they said – they shared some parables, one being about birds and flocks and how with the smallest changes a lot can be accomplished. It was along the lines of a swallow building its nest little by little with the mud from the earth, like Christ used the mud to clean the blind man’s eyes, so he could see, the same way the church is built little by little so that all men can finally see.

They stayed for dinner, and I remember how, when we came out of the church, the entire monastery parking was full of dark colored Mercedes limos with tinted windows and bodyguards standing next to them.

Cleopa had neither of these, nor any need for them. He would be comfortable going back up the mountains with his cane, his hat on his head, and his woolen vest to keep him warm. He could easily blend into the paths that he alone knew and would be on his way to Sihastria Monastery, where he was the abbot.

I will not describe today the miracles that he performed, as they are too numerous. He had many words of wisdom and yet he humbly called himself “old man rot”. He would say – “Why would you want to come and talk to old man rot? What am I but a sack of rot that has nothing worthy to tell or give?” He would use that to filter those who wanted to talk to him to see if their heart was in the right place. He would pretend he was nothing compared to what he really was – a trait from the times when he had to escape persecution, and he would pierce you with his deep blue eyes, knowing what was going on inside you, and giving you the right advice. During the conversation he’d say to you “may heaven consume you” (the opposite of the Romanian curse word – “may hell consume you”).

Similar to Father Paisios on Athos, he would receive the multitudes for confession, and they would talk about the Grace they received from God when meeting Cleopa. Although persecuted, he never gave up, never submitted to following an atheistic, humanity destroying regime, in exchange for his burden being reduced. Cleopa was not imprisoned or martyred for Christ under the totalitarian steamroller that swept eastern Europe. But as an abbot at Sihastria Monastery starting in the 1950s he was able to help grow that group of monks and raise the flock of believers despite the persecutions of the communist regime. Through divine inspiration (on a few occasions) and help from kind fellow Christians (on other occasions) he knew when to leave the monastery and find refuge in the mountains so that the Secret Police could never capture him. Sometimes he hid for years, being by himself with nature, in huts that he himself would build and camouflage, his small churches where he would keep the holy gifts, his books and icons, in constant prayer and vigil.

This was not the case of many others, including my Father Confessor at that time, Iustin Parvu, who was one of Cleopa’s close friends and was an abbot at a different monastery, Petru Voda, north of Durau. He was one of the martyrs who, through God’s will, survived multiple prisons and labor camps.

The Holy Martyrs of Romanian Prisons (who we celebrate on May 14th) did not wake up one day in 1947 and choose to follow Christ and go to jail willingly. Most of them young priests, monks, and deacons, were picked up (usually at night) from their homes, blindfolded, beaten, and interrogated for weeks in the cells of the Secret Police. Those who survived the tortures went to trial. Some were summarily executed, others were condemned and sent to cruelly named “reeducation” centers – prisons where the humiliation, torture, and the “uttering of all kinds of evil things about them falsely” on Christ’s account continued. The clergy would suffer mock crucifixions as one of the many forms of punishment. It is here where their paths split into 3. Some committed suicide. Others chose to save their earthly lives and became ashamed of Christ, then turned and became torturers themselves. To prove their commitment to the communist party, they were sent to the Gulags to spread their abuse onto the last group who kept their faith, survived the reeducation prisons, yet were sent to the same labor camps. 

All these methods were a result of 30 years of experience through experimentation, refining, and reimplementation by what in 1917’s Russia was first called CEKA (the organization enforcing the secret police’s tribunals), then NKVD, then KGB, and today FSB. The destruction of any form of humanity, as created in God’s image, was systematically applied in Russia, then implemented in the states it occupied under the USSR, and, after the end of the second world war onto those behind the Iron Curtain, and other communist states around the globe.

Yet, despite all the continuous work to improve the destruction of anyone who might speak against the regime, in its myopic wake, Communism failed to destroy the spirit, as it created and continues to create more martyrs than all of Rome’s emperors put together.

The men and women who lived to tell the stories of their survival were saints themselves and helped preserve the memory of those sacrificed martyred saints.

After communism fell, the ones who lived brought with them the spirit of the times before the second world war, as well as the holiness poured into them by the Grace of God during their years of suffering. Their cells were different from Cleopa’s, yet the solitude and communion with Christ was the same.

Father Iustin Parvu for example, only through Christ’s strength survived the horrors of Suceava, Jilava, Gherla, Aiud, and Pitesti prisons, as well as the Gulags at Baia Sprie, Cavnic, Periprava, and Culmea. He would say that when you’re in a city, as a priest, the Devil would come to you in the form of all of life’s temptations. But when you’re a monk in your cell, the Devil will come to you personally. He survived those “meetings” and carried his own cross, and, alongside his fellow martyrs, the cross of all Romanian people. One of his sayings is that persecution is our ticket to Heaven.

He was 70 when communism fell. With God’s strength and grace, between the ages of 72 and 79 he built Petru Voda Monastery which is dedicated to all the Romanian saints martyred in the Gulags. Maybe it is for that reason that God preserved him – to be a beacon for others, to keep fresh in their memory the horrors that man-removed-from-God can enact unto his fellow man, and to show to all that Christianity was victorious over atheism, and over totalitarianism of any kind.

In addition to his monastery – where he now reposed in 2013, at the age of 94 – he built another one in Aiud, where he was once imprisoned, over the field where the dead prisoners would be thrown out (surreptitiously in the middle of the night), a place literally called the Slaves Pit.

The history of that prison starts 170 years prior to the beginning of the communist genocide in Romania. At that time, the Austro-Hungarian (Holy Roman) empress, Maria Theresa decided to exterminate the orthodox in Transilvania that did not want to convert to Unitarianism – the local form of Protestantism.

The orthodox, which had already survived for centuries the prior attempts to being converted by the catholic Hungarian rulers, would choose to be imprisoned and die, rather than deny their faith.

After the end of the first world war, when Transylvania came back home and Romanians were no longer persecuted and treated as second class on their own homeland, people thought that the prison would not be used anymore. But the Russians decided to use it again after they occupied Romania in 1944 and installed their regime in 1947. This time it wasn’t Protestantism, it was atheism that the prisoners faced. They continued to speak the truth, and, like John the Baptist, were martyred in their cells, or like Daniel were not destroyed by the lions.

There is too much to talk about the miracles that took place in those cells, how the nonbelievers found faith, how all believers came to Christ, how some of the torturers even repented when faced with the martyrs’ miracles.

In their ignorance (or through God’s infinite wisdom), communists sought to destroy the body and break the mind. Yet the more they took from the material comforts, the more man was left with nothing but his raw soul, yearning and praying to God.

And God was always there, at the bottom of the deepest, driest well, when you dig the earth and clay with fingers broken from torture and crucifixion, hoping that you’d find one drop of water… And from that well the Living waters of the Holy Spirit flow around and through you, and then no beatings or starvations or solitary confinement, none of the worldly acrimonies had the effect they desired, but the opposite.

And that’s how the saints of the prisons were able to create other monks inside their cells, to have liturgy and eucharist in hiding, to tabernacle fragments of sacred texts written from memory. And despite every time when they were discovered and punished, they came back stronger in their faith.

In 1992, in parallel with his monastery at Petru Voda, Father Iustin Parvu started building this monastery-monument at Aiud, with the holy feast day on the day of the holy cross. The building is extra-ordinary, as it doesn’t follow the regular outside aspect of a church. On top there are 7 rows of crosses, representing the infinite number of martyrs of the prisons, who carry a large, 90-foot-long cross symbolizing the cross of the Romanian people being martyred by the communists.


Inside the church-mausoleum we find plaques with the engraved names of those who died under the tortures and horrors of the Gulags. The steps descent as into a crypt, symbolizing the early churches built when Christians were being martyred for their faith. At the end of the steps there is a small church, and below the altar a museum holds the holy relics of many martyred saints for Christ. These bones were recovered after the 1989 revolution from the Slaves Pit. Many show the hallmarks of holy relics – their hair and soft tissues are present, and some effuse myrrh and a holy aroma. There are videos available online that show a number of miracles as they were being brought to groups of believers during conferences regarding their martyrdom.

All this to show again that God is alive and working through his saints, through the Holy Spirit inside our nous, as long as we let Him and want Him to guide our lives. These people had everything taken away from them, and the more was taken away of the material, the more their spiritual chains were removed.

Just like the gospel today says – whoever loses his life (meaning all the material things that keep his body alive) for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.

In Romania we say, when we meet someone who saw an important person, that “you have seen the eyes that have seen [that man]”.

Well now you have seen the eyes that have seen Cleopa, and Iustin Parvu. And their eyes have seen in the fullness of God’s Glory the Theotokos and Christ resurrected.

I was blessed to walk in the presence of Saints, but as a young child I didn’t know it at the time.

And as the sinner that I am today, I am further removed from them, than their graves are from Dothan, Alabama. Because, despite all I have learned about my faith, all I have seen and felt, I have not picked up my cross and walked along side my Lord, since I continue to live in the pleasures of this world and have not denied myself and followed only Christ.

I continue to obey the world while thinking that I can change it for the better. But that is comforting self-deceit, as I don’t have the courage to give everything up, own nothing, and walk the uncompromising (yet loving and forgiving) path of God.

I, like many, look up to the prophets who were martyred for God, but do not walk in their footsteps.

Now if any good comes of today’s reading, of all that I shared with you, is that you know that Truth exists. That God lives forever through His saints, those who do His works and love even those who martyred them. Incessantly those persecuted prayed for their enemies, and repeatedly some of those enemies were tamed like Daniel’s lions. The others, like those beheading John the Baptist, were given time by God to repent, and see how their entire atheistic empire and belief system was scattered away by the winds of the Holy Spirit.

I told you about the saints I met so that you know that they existed, in flesh and bones and spirit, and that their spirit burned with love for God, and that His grace and strength allowed them to survive and perform the true miracles that they fulfilled. The Holy Martyrs’ bones and icons still spring myrrh and fill the churches and conference halls with heavenly aromas.

These things are not fairy tales, and I am here to bear witness to them, as they bore witness to Christ.

Martyr means witness

So, as we conclude, if you want to walk on that path and follow the lord, start with the 4 things that Cleopa said about today:

Repent, pray, fast, and be merciful.

Think for yourselves how much we actually carry our cross, or our brother’s cross. And may God give you the strength and wisdom to bear them, and help each other in so doing.


The 19th of March 2023