NOW THE FLAMING SWORD NO LONGER GUARDS THE GATES OF PARADISE; IT HAS BEEN MYSTERIOUSLY QUENCHED BY THE WOOD OF THE CROSS! THE STING OF DEATH AND THE VICTORY OF HELL HAVE BEEN VANQUISHED, FOR YOU, MY SAVIOR, CAME AND CRIED TO THOSE IN HELL: ENTER AGAIN INTO PARADISE! (Kontakion for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)
We come to the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent, the very middle of the Fast, a day dedicated to the Cross of Christ. We have heard Jesus’ words, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). And the common interpretation of these words in Orthodoxy make us think about the self-denial of the fast or perhaps about the passion and suffering of Christ Himself on Holy Friday. We are often told that the very purpose of focusing on the Cross in mid-Lent is to encourage us to carry on with our fasting and self-denial: we may be tired of the fast or tired by the fast, but we must shoulder the cross and soldier on.
Yet, there is another connection with the Cross that we can readily note in the Epistle reading: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). It is the Cross of Christ which enables us to approach the throne of grace boldly – with the same boldness with which we dare to call God our heavenly Father when we say the Lord’s Prayer during the Divine Liturgy. Christ’s arms stretched out on the cross are not in our Church hymns portrayed as lifeless but rather are full of strength and are welcoming us into His embrace.
The Cross for us is our sign of victory – it is through the Cross that Christ brought humanity to the throne of the Father. Through the Cross joy comes into all the world and we are restored to communion with our God. We hear this in the hymns for this day. For example from the Matins Canon:
COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE LIFE‑CREATING TREE. CHRIST, THE KING OF GLORY, STRETCHED OUT HIS HANDS ON IT AND EXALTED US TO PARADISE, FROM WHERE HE HAD BEEN DRIVEN BY THE DEVIL’S INSTIGATION. COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE TREE. BY IT, WE ARE EMPOWERED TO CRUSH THE HEADS OF INVISIBLE ENEMIES. COME, ALL GENERATIONS OF NATIONS. LET US HONOR THE CROSS OF THE LORD WITH SONGS. REJOICE, PERFECT REDEMPTION OF FALLEN ADAM. NOW ALL CHRISTIANS VENERATE YOU IN FEAR AND LOVE, SINGING, HAVE MERCY ON US, GRACIOUS LORD AND LOVER OF MANKIND!
Doing a word count of the hymns that are found in the Matins Canon for this Lenten Sunday of the Cross we see: the word fasting occurs only once, abstinence only 3 times, the word sin or passions occurs 10 times, and references to the crucifixion or Christ being nailed to the cross occurs 15 times. On the other hand words related to resurrection, Pascha, life, the destruction of hell and demons occur 54 times. Add to those, words about rejoicing, salvation, light, paradise, and Kingdom we find 143 references in the Canon. More than 80% of the Canon is about Christ’s victory, Christ’s triumph, the destruction of death and the resurrection of the dead. This is the focus of this Sunday. The Canon for the Sunday of the Cross has in it all the Irmos hymns from the Paschal Canon and thus today we are already proclaiming the resurrection of Christ. Here are two hymns which are good examples of the focus of the hymns for the day:
This is a festival day: at the awakening of Christ, death has fled away; The light of life has dawned; Adam has risen and dances for joy! Therefore let us cry aloud and sing a song of victory!
Behold, Christ is risen! said the angel to the Myrrh‑bearing women! Do not lament, but go and say to the apostles: Rejoice, for today is the world’s salvation! The tyranny of the enemy has been destroyed through the death of Christ!
We find this emphasis on the glory and victory of the cross in the writings of the early church fathers as well. As some church historians have noted, the Cross as a symbol of God’s salvation and love and triumph was the focus of the early church. Only later in history does the Cross become more a sign of Christ’s passion and suffering. And only when this more ascetic theme takes over does the focus of the cross turn away from our participation in Christ’s salvation and turn more toward ascetical themes of personal self-denial, fasting and abstinence. St. Paul himself writes about how we participate in and benefit by the Cross of Christ:
For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-22)
For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him… (Colossians 1:19-22) [For other Pauline references to the Cross and Christ’s death as the instrument of our salvation see Romans 5:6-6:11, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Galatians 2:19-20, Colossians 2:12-15]
A few more examples of the hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross:
You have risen from the tomb, never‑setting Light, shining upon the world with the bright dawn of incorruption! In Your compassion You have driven out the dark sorrow of death from the farthest corners of the earth!
You crushed death, O Christ, and rose as a mighty King, recalling us from the depths of hell! You brought us to the land of immortality, granting us the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven!
Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy as we greet the Cross of the Lord. Let us sing triumphantly to God, for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!
During Great Lent, we don’t just focus on Christ’s suffering or our own self-denial. The Cross of Christ reminds us that we are to be united to God our Father and to rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Cross reminds us that Christ has obtained salvation for all. The Cross is for us has opened the door to Paradise.
A last thought: Frequently in the early church writings there is mention of the two ways – the way of the world which leads to death and the way of the Cross which leads to eternal life. You can follow the way of the world ( for example just keep watching the news and the news feeds and you will see exactly how the world defines glory, power, what is right – might, political power, military, the kingdom of this world). Or you can turn the news and news feeds off and pay attention to the themes of Great Lent, the way of Christ (self denial, humility, tears, broken-heartedness, the cross, a kingdom not of this world). You can rejoice in the Lord or lament the condition of the world. That choice is yours. There are three weeks left in Great Lent, three weeks for you to allow your heart and mind to give up on the way of the world in order to follow Christ. If you give up on the way of the world – stop paying attention to the news or new feeds and instead come to the Church services to hear about Christ and the way to the Kingdom. You will find the way to abundant life and the joy of the Lord God.