Perfection is Not a Plateau, It’s the Striving

In the imagery of the spiritual life as climbing the ladder of divine ascent, there is a limited number of rungs to climb and one can fall back or off the ladder.  St Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand envisioned the spiritual life as endless growth.  There was no plateau to reach, one simply keeps progressing, and it is the continued growth itself which is perfection.  It is a very dynamic view of the spiritual life because the spiritual life is growth in one’s relationship to God and God is without end so one’s relationship with God never ceases growing.

 

“Gregory [of Nyssa] went on to make progress itself perfection…  ‘the one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit,’ there is no stopping place in the racecourse of virtue (I, 5-6; cf. II, 242). Perfection is unlimited, and so unattainable; hence, perfection is redefined: ‘The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness’ (I, 10)… ‘Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the good brought to an end because it is satisfied’ (II, 239). Moses ‘always found a step higher than the one he had attained’ (II, 227). Participation in virtue dilates the capacity for more virtue. The flesh can know satiety, but the spirit cannot (II, 59ff., 230).

…Gregory once more reiterates that the only perfection available to men in this life is to be found in progress toward perfection (II, 305-314): ‘The continual development of life to what is better is the soul’s way to perfection.’

Although Gregory makes much of the sequence of events in Scripture, this fact should not be pressed in an absolute sense. Moses’ life is not made to fit a schematized progression of spiritual experience. Some things do logically precede others in one’s spiritual development, but the experiences of life may not be reduced to a formula. The stages of Moses’ life are a pattern not so much in their order as in their constant going on to new things.”

(from the introduction, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, pp. 12-13)

Faith, Hope and Trust in the Lord

The Gospel lesson of Mark 9:17-31:

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nThen one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”

This Gospel lesson  is centered on an idea of faith or belief: what is faith?  how does belief manifest itself? and what power can faith bring into one’s life?  Unfortunately we can be tempted to think faith is just a way to get miracles into our life, kind of like a faucet which we can turn on and off to get miracles to come out whenever we are thirsty for them.  Or some in Christianity like to see themselves as miracle workers who can dispense miracles at will, so they see themselves as being the faucet which controls the powers of God to miraculously change the normal and mundane events of life.  Jesus for His part dispels such shallow understandings of miracles, and always uses miracles to get us to see and think beyond this world, to look for the Kingdom of God – not to look for miracles in this world but to open the eyes of our heart to see beyond this world.  Otherwise we are at risk to be so enamored with the glamour of miracles that we seek out the miracles rather than the God who gives ever good and perfect gift.   Miracles it turns out are nothing but signs that the Kingdom exists, but miracles are not the main point, rather they point to what is truly important – namely the Kingdom of God.  If we wonder why there aren’t more miracles in our lives, it is because we aren’t looking for the Kingdom to which the miracles point.  It is because we wrongly want the miracles rather than the reality to which they point.

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Miracles not only point to the Kingdom of God, they invite us to respond to the Kingdom, and in the Gospel, the response to the Kingdom is repentance not seeking miraculous powers or more miracles.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  (Luke 10:17-20)

We can see in the Gospel lesson of Mark of Mark 9:17-31 that the ability to perform a miracle is not everything.  The 12 Disciples are not able to overcome the one demon possessing the boy.  Last Sunday, the Sunday of the Cross, we proclaimed the total destruction of all evil, of demons, and today we see the disciples stymied by one demon.  Now we learn of the struggle we face in this world.  The spiritual life is rightly described as spiritual warfare, and in warfare even if there is victory there can be casualties, dangers, defeats, even for the chosen saints.  The Cross means victory for us, but we still must persevere in life.  We are promised blessings in the world to come, the trouble is we are still in this world, a fallen and sinful world.  Here we do not always find victory, joy and ease.  We do find sickness, suffering, death, failure, frustration.  Here the cross is something we must sometimes carry as a burden.  Jesus says the lesson is we need to pray and fast,  but we want the miracles without having to give up anything ourselves.  The disciples were brokenhearted by their failure, but they aren’t the only failure in the Gospel lesson.

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Jesus tells the dad of this sick boy:   “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”     Here is the moment of metanoia in the dad – for up to this point he has accused the disciples of being failures – “I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”    Suddenly, confronted by Jesus, he realizes the failure is his own – he has not believed it possible for anyone to help his son.  The failure is not in the disciples alone, but the man must be willing to trust in God, work with God, not just dump it on God and blame God and his followers for the failure.  The dad accepts his responsibility in what happens, he undergoes a conversion and begins to cooperate with God.  The dad was demanding help but not praying, the dad’s heart had to be changed, he had to become a man of prayer, not just a man demanding that his wishes be granted, but a man humble enough to realize his own helplessness and his dependence on others for help.

And all of this helps us understand that faith as such is not a faucet which we turn on and off to get what we want.  Faith is a relationship with God, a total life commitment to the God we are hoping in, trusting, believing and relying on.  When we manage to live in relationship to God, then we have faith.  Faith it turns out is also about our relationship with the entire Body of Christ, all believers, and how we relate to them.

At the beginning of Lent I commented that Israel in being called out of Egypt and into the desert was called to trust in the Lord, to put their faith in God, and not rely on the material resources that civilization could provide them.  Israel had to renounce their dependence on the mighty Egyptian Empire to which they had become enslaved.  Israel was not called to start a civil war to take over the empire, they were called to leave civilization and move into the hostile and inhospitable desert of desolation.  They were called to abandon all  that civilization had to offer them and to go into the desert where there is nothing awaiting them except for God.   This is what Great Lent calls us to do – civilization and all its pleasures, foods, entertainment are all around us, but God calls us out of that and to look for God in the wilderness, where there is hunger and deprivation and self denial is necessary just to survive.   In the desert, deprived of the comforts, the advantages of technology, of society, of civilization, we are confronted by whether we really trust God or not.    Salvation is not going to come from the greatest and richest country in the world.  Rather it comes from God.  We have to find God and not become enticed by wealth and power of the nation.

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We are to live in a covenant relationship with God, not seeking out miracles here and there, but adhering to faithfulness to God.  Great Lent calls us away from all the “blessings” which we so love and says do you really want God, the Giver of every good and perfect gift, OR do you really just want the abundance?   Would you give up God in a second if you could find abundance on your own?  Do you only seek God for what you can extract from Him?

“When the Church calls us to her truth, she does not hold out some theoretical theses Which must be accepted in principle.  She invites us to a personal relationship, to a ‘way’ of life which constitutes a relationship with God or leads progressively and experientially to a relationship with Him.  This way transforms our entire life from individual survival to an event of communion.  The Church is a body of communion, wherein the members live, not each one for himself, but each one in an organic unity of love with the rest of the members and with the head of the body, with Christ.  ‘I believe in the truth of the Church’ means that I agree to be included in the ‘bond of love’ which constitutes it; I trust in the love of the saints and of God, and they accept me with faith and trust in my person.”  (Christos Yannaras, ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 14)

The faith that the dad needed in today’s Gospel lesson, the faith the disciples needed, the faith that we need is this relationship with God and admitting our dependence on God and need to trust God.  Think about today’s Epistle reading:

“that … we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. ”  (Hebrews 6:18-20)

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Hope it says is an anchor to the soul  and it is this hope which enters the Presence in the Holy of Holies.  Hope it turns out is a person, Jesus Christ.  Christ is the way, truth and the life.  Christ is our hope.   Our faith it turns out is to be united to Christ with all our soul, mind, heart, body, strength.  Faith, hope and trust all are ways that we relate to Christ our God, not mental contortions we use to extract from nature the things we crave.  Faith is a living relationship with God.

St Isaac the Syrian says our life is a spiritual warfare for which we can be prepared to engage in:

“Before the war begins, seek after your ally . . . and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and he will hearken to you.  Before you stumble, call out and make supplication …    The ark of Noah was built in the time of peace, and its timbers were planted by him a hundred years beforehand.  In the time of wrath the iniquitous perished, but the ark became the shelter for the righteous man.” 

In Lent we endeavor to establish our relationship with God, to seek an ally in this world.   Because Lent doesn’t keep us away from the world but prepares us to go back into the world with God in us daily always and in all ways.  The journey into the desert for Israel was that time period they needed to prepare them as a people to enter into the Promised Land.

The Ladder of the Kingdom is Within You

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac …”  (Genesis 28:12-13)

“Be at peace with your soul and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Endeavor to enter the treasury within you and you will see that treasury which is in heaven. The former and the latter are one and through a single entrance you will see both of them. The ladder of that kingdom is hidden within you, within your soul. Dive away from sin into yourself and you there you will find the steps by which you may ascend.”   (St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, p. 34)

The Many Graces of Baptism

“When you come to the sacred initiation, the eyes of the flesh see water; the eyes of faith behold the Spirit. Those eyes see the body being baptized; these see the old man being buried. The eyes of the flesh see the flesh being washed, the eyes of the spirit see the soul being cleansed. The eyes of the body see the body emerging from the water; the eyes of faith see the new man come forth brightly shining from that new purification. Our bodily eyes see the priest as, from above, he lays his right hand on the head and touches (him who is being baptized) our spiritual eyes see the great High Priest (Jesus) as He stretches forth His invisible hand to touch his head. For, at that moment, the one who baptizes is not a man, but the only-begotten Son of God.

For this reason, when the priest is baptizing he does not say, “I baptize so-and-so,” but, “So-and-so is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this way he shows that it is not he who baptizes but those whose names have been invoked, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pp. 120)

True Lenten Charity

He gave Himself up for the life of the world (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

“Strive to acquire humility, and charity – the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates.”  (Macarius, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 56)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  (Genesis 9:8-17)

God’s covenant relationship is not just with the chosen people, but with all creation, which God repeats again and again as God talks to Noah:  with every living creature (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16), with the earth (9:13),  with all flesh (9:15, 16 and 17).  If God so loves the world which He created, shouldn’t we?

Fasting to Weaken the Passions

[To a sick monk]: Concerning fasting, do not grieve, as I have said to you before: God does not demand of anyone labors beyond his strength. And indeed, what is fasting if not a punishment of the body in order to humble a healthy body and make it infirm for passions, according to the word of the Apostle: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (II Cor. 12:10). And disease, more than this, is a punishment and takes the place of fasting and even more – for one who bears it with patience, thanks God, and through patience receives the fruit of his salvation; for instead of weakening his body by fasting, he is already sick without that. Give thanks to God that you have been delivered from the labor of fasting.

Even if you will eat ten times in a day, do not grieve; you will not be judged for this, for you are doing this not at the demon’s instigation, and not from the weakening of your thought; but rather, this occurs to us for our testing and for profit to the soul. (Sts Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p. 62).

The Cross and Our Salvation

“The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,

for a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.

The sting of Death and the victory of Hell were nailed to it.

But you appeared, my Savior, crying to those in hell:

“Be brought back again to Paradise.”

(St Romanos, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 155)

Lent is Half Over!

“I have observed many persons rejoicing, and saying one to another, ‘We have conquered; we have prevailed; the half of the fast is spent.’ But I exhort such persons not to rejoice on this account, that the half of the fast is gone, but to consider whether the half of their sins be gone; and if so, then to exult. For this is a fit subject of gratification. This is what is to be sought after, and for which all things are done, that we may correct our defects; and that we may not quit the fast the same persons as we entered upon it, but in a cleansed state; and that having laid aside all that belongs to evil habits, we may thus keep the sacred feast, since if the case be otherwise, we shall be so far from obtaining any advantage, that the completion of the fast will be the greatest injury to us. Let us, therefore, not rejoice that we have gone through the length of the fast, for this is nothing great; but let us rejoice, if we have got through it with fresh attainments, so that when this is over, the fruit of it may shine forth. For the gain of winter is more especially manifested after the season is gone by.

Then, the flourishing corn, and the trees teeming with leaves and fruit, proclaim, by their appearance, the benefit that has accrued to them from the winter! Let the same thing also take place with us. For during the winter, we have enjoyed divers and frequent showers, having been during the fast partakers of a continued course of instruction, and have received spiritual seeds, and cut away the thorns of luxury.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Rejoice in the Lord Always, p. 2)

The Cross: The Way to the Joyous Kingdom

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.

The Cross: How Joy Comes Into the World

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!

(Hymn for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

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In his book, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY,  Jean Danielou points out that in the literary works from the first two Centuries of Christianity which focus on “the Cross as a theological symbol” the Cross is portrayed “as the power of Christ in his resurrection, as a sign of the cosmic scope of the redemption, and as an object of eschatological expectation” (Danielou, p 265).   This focus will change over time and as monasticism gains dominance as being “normative” Christianity the Cross becomes more focused on the passion of Christ and on asceticism as a response to Christ’s passion.  The more ancient focus in the literature “… is, however, obviously not the Cross as an image of Christ suffering, but the glorious Cross which will precede him at the Parousia.  The modification of its significance in the former sense was brought about by later Christian asceticism, which saw in it not a prophecy of the Parousia, but a memorial of the Passion”  (Danielou, p 269).

Monastic asceticism turned the focus away from the Parousia to the Passion of Christ.  But then the humanism which followed in European Christianity turned the focus ever more on the human suffering of Christ.  In Orthodoxy this tended to manifest itself by focusing on Mary’s own lamentations about the suffering of her son, while the West developed not only Mary’s suffering but also the human agony of Christ Himself as he is tortured and dies on the cross.   I find it interesting that in the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross (the midpoint of Great Lent), we see that focus on the glorious and life-giving Cross far more than on the passion of Christ or on asceticism or fasting.  The Cross thus is not so much a symbol of Christ’s death as it is a sign of His triumph over death.  The Lenten Sunday of the Cross appears to be more in line with the earlier Christian emphasis.

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In the Canon for the Sunday of the Cross we see what Danielou describes in his book as the focus of early Christianity:

“The Cross has thus been promoted to represent the whole plan of redemption.  It reaches out to the whole of Creation; it symbolizes the action of the Word as well in the farthest heaven as in the abysses of hell, and represents the spread of this action over the breadth of space and the length of time.”  (Danielou, pp 291-291)

The Cross represents Christ’s cosmic victory over all evil whether in the air, on earth or in hell.  It is the sign of God’s triumph in which heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.

We also see the Cross as a sign of victory when the hymns of the Canon make reference to the Old Testament:  Moses prefigures the Cross with outstretched arms in defeating Amalek, Moses prefigures the Cross in dividing the sea with his rod and then causing the sea to close on the Egyptians, Daniel stretches out his hands cross-like in the lion’s den, the wood is thrown into the bitter waters to make them sweet and drinkable, Jonah arose on the 3rd day from the whale.  The Old Testament thus anticipates the Cross of the Lord, making it possible for us now to see God’s victorious triumph over death through Christ’s death on the cross.

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On the Lenten Sunday of the Cross, the canon also contains all the same Irmos hymns that we sing in the Canon for Paschal Matins.  We begin the Matins Canon for the Cross with:

THIS IS THE DAY OF RESURRECTION:
LET US BE ILLUMINED, O PEOPLE!
PASCHA, THE PASCHA OF THE LORD!
FOR FROM DEATH TO LIFE, AND FROM EARTH TO HEAVEN
HAS CHRIST OUR GOD LED US,
AS WE SING THE SONG OF VICTORY!

We are already proclaiming the resurrection.   The Cross is a festal sign, it celebrates the victory of Christ over sin, death, demons and Satan.  The theme of the Sunday is not “Lent is long and hard and we have a lot more fasting yet to go.”  Rather the theme is resurrection and we already know the destination because it is the basis for our daily life in Christ!   The following are all hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross to give us some of the themes emphasized for this mid-Lent Sunday:

Today there is joy in earth and heaven,

for the sign of the Cross is made manifest to all the world!

The thrice‑blessed Cross is set before us;

a fountain of ever‑flowing grace to all who show it honor!

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You arose on the third day from the tomb,

as one waking from sleep, O Lord.

By Your divine power, You struck down the keepers of hell,

raising up all our ancestors from the beginning of time,

for You alone are blessed and greatly glorified:

the God of our Fathers!

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On this day, the Cross of Christ, the Wood anointed with life,

fills all things with the fragrance of divine grace.

As we smell its God‑given scent,

let us venerate it with faith forever!

Your tomb, O Christ, has brought life to me,

for You, the Lord of Life,

came and cried to those dwelling in the grave:

Be free, all who are in bonds,

for I am come, the Ransom of the world!

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The Lenten Sunday of the Cross is not focused on the passion of Christ and His suffering on the Cross.  Rather, it focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Pascha which we will celebrate in another month.  And by anticipation it looks forward to eschaton, when Christ will fill all things with Himself and death will be no more.  The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory, and from the beginning of Christianity it was celebrated as such.