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.”
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:36-43)
in the The Lenten Triodion we read:
But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way, ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace.
Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended to be. (p. 24)
There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.
The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31)
See also my blog Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man.
Twenty-five years ago there was an article in NEWSWEEK magazine entitled, “Our Fear of Dying”, 4 October 1993. The author, Daniel Callahan made several comments that still seem true today:
“As a health obsessed society, we do not know what to do with death, other than to try to control it.”
Callahan mentioned the American medical enterprise invests heavily in trying to overcome diseases that lead to death – a veritable war on death. He noted that in the medical enterprise in America there is
“… the potent assumption that death is essentially an accident, correctable with enough money, will and scientific ingenuity…”
If America put enough of its wealth and entrepreneurial spirit into it, medical science would make death itself a thing of the past. Callahan wrote that other modern cultures around the world were much more at peace with human mortality. America perhaps was in a great deal of denial about what it is to be human. About the time that he wrote that article, I was a speaker at a continuing education event for doctors at a local university, speaking about end of life issues. I remember clearly how the surgeons in the group were almost never ready to admit that there was an end to treatment for patients and almost all felt there was always one more thing that could be tried. The family practice doctors on the other hand seemed to have a clearer sense that there was a point where you have to admit there is nothing more you can do medically for a patient. Callahan argues that we
“… should seek to educate physicians to see death not as an accident that medicine has failed to eliminate, but as a permanent part of the human condition that requires medicine’s good care, a fitting and inevitable final goal of the entire enterprise.”
Our fear of death drove us to denial about its reality, leading to our throwing money into an effort to defeat death, and yet Americans like all humans continue to die daily. We may increase life expectancy, but we should expect death as well. We dream that medical science can eventually conquer all the causes of death, that there really is absolutely nothing to limit our human ingenuity and drive.
Perhaps we should read again the Genesis account of the tower of Babel. Those folks too believed nothing could limit them. But that Is another story.
The Bible reminds us that death has a spiritual cause. We cannot eliminate death by using only medical means. Death is related to sin, and has something to do with our own spiritual lives and our relationship to God. Or, more accurately our loss of a relationship to God.
Everything in this world comes to an end, everything has a limit – a great basketball game, a wonderful symphony, the beauty of autumn, an exquisite gourmet meal, a spirited dance, a football winning streak.
Death can only be cheated through our own repentance, our establishing a right relationship with God. Godliness sees us through the experience of death into the realm of eternal life.
Some years ago I saw a poem written during the Byzantine Empire. It said:
Eat, Drink, be merry for tomorrow
You may die.
But you never do.
You never die tomorrow, for the day of your death is always this day you are in, and there is no tomorrow for the one who has died today. The poem points out to us a fallacy in our thinking which makes us believe we will live forever since tomorrow never comes. Today, however, is the day.
Some ask the question, why do we die at all? Why is there death. We Christians might respond by saying that is the wrong question. The real question is “why is their life?” Why does anything exist at all?
It all exists because of God and God’s love. Death brings this life to an end, but death cannot change the purpose of life, which is to love God and be in communion with God. Death cannot separate us from the love of God.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
Many people wonder what happens to us when we die and it is a common question asked in churches. All kinds of speculations exist and descriptions of life after death, even in Orthodoxy, toll house theories and the like. Read the Gospel lesson above (Luke 16:19-31), it too gives a description of life after death, albeit in a parable, so it is not trying to give an accurate portrayal of life beyond the grave. But in the parable ultimately the rich man now in his life-after-death situation wants to try to reach back to the people he left behind in the world. There is this irony – We in the world are all wondering about life after death, and he in the afterlife is worried about those living in the world! And basically the parable is not teaching us about what happens to us after death, but a warning to us to pay attention to how we live while on earth. The afterlife cannot help us live properly on earth and living correctly on earth is far more important to our Lord Jesus than the life after death. He who proclaimed His kingdom is not of this world spends very little time talking about life after death.
We might remember that according to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, after they sin, they try to hide from God.
Notice how different our Lord Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, in His deepest prayer He desires to be with God and not be left alone.
Both were facing death, but for Adam and Eve death meant separation from God and they chose death and that separation from God. For Christ, death could not separate Him from His father. Death is no friend for Jesus. Christ sees beyond death to eternal life and an unending loving relationship with God our Father. Christ chooses eternal life.
Humans were created for immortality, death is a disintegration of the human. But our battle with death is a spiritual battle which cannot be fought by medicine alone. The medical enterprise will not bring an end to death.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.” (John 11:25)
I have gathered all of the 2018 posts from my blog related to the Pentecostarion into one document. This includes posts related to the Sundays after Pascha, the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost. You can find that document at 2018 Post-Paschal Sundays (PDF).
You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, Post-Paschal Sundays and many other topics at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.
The exalted Jesus participates in God’s unique sovereignty over all things.
At a very early stage, which is presupposed and reflected in all the New Testament writings, early Christians understood Jesus to have been exalted after his death to the throne of God in the highest heaven. There, seated with God on God’s throne, Jesus exercises or participates in God’s unique sovereignty over the whole cosmos. This decisive step of understanding a human being to be participating now in the unique divine sovereignty over the cosmos was unprecedented. The principal angels and exalted patriarchs of Second Temple.
Jewish literature provide no precedent. It is this radical novelty which leads to all the other exalted christological claims of the New Testament texts. But, although a novelty, its meaning depends upon the Jewish monotheistic conceptual context in which the early Christians believed it. Because the unique sovereignty of God over all things was precisely one of the two major features which characterized the unique identity of God in distinction from all other reality, this confession of Jesus reigning on the divine throne was precisely a recognition of his inclusion in the unique divine identity, himself decisively distinguished, as God himself is, from any exalted heavenly servant of God.
(Richard J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Kindle Location 302-309)
“We have an eloquent testimony to the ultimate restoration of the world from the great Syrian poet-theologian St. Ephrem:
At our resurrection, both earth and heaven will God renew,
liberating all creatures, granting them paschal joy, along with us.
Upon our mother Earth, along with us, did he lay disgrace
when he placed on her, with the sinner, the curse;
so, together with the just, he will bless her too;
this nursing mother, along with her children, shall he who is Good renew. “
(from Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, p. 38)
For those who have tasted of the Savior, the Object of desire is present. From the beginning human desire was made to be gauged and measured by the desire for Him, and is a treasury so great, so ample, that it is able to encompass even God. Thus there is no satisfaction, nothing stills the desire, even if men attain to all the excellent things in life, for we still thirst as though we had none of the things for which we long. The thirst of human souls needs, as it were, an infinite water; how then could this limited world suffice?
This is what the Lord hinted when He said to the Samaritan woman, “he who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst’ (Jn. 4:13-14). This is the water that slakes the thirst of human souls, for it says, “when I behold Thy glory I shall be satisfied with it” (Ps. 17:15 LXX). The eye was capable of perceiving light, the ear for sound, and each member for its appropriate end; the desire of the soul has for its object Christ alone.
Gospel of the Samaritan Woman: John 4:5-42
“My faith, finally, is that if I am canceled by the power death has in our world, then God’s greater power can overcome it.” (John Garvey, Death and the Rest of Our Life, p. 78)
On my first visit to Armenia in 1990, I visited the home of Anahid and Kevork Oynoyan. They had lost their twelve-year-old son, Armen, in the catastrophic earthquake of December 1988, and Kevork was profoundly depressed as a result. . . . He got up and brought back a copy of the New Testament and a book that had been distributed by the Hare Krishna sect describing the transmigration and reincarnation of the soul. He asked if I would explain the difference between reincarnation and the Christian belief in the resurrection. He said that in his atheism classes years before he had been taught that Christianity is spiritualist. If that was so, weren’t reincarnation and resurrection essentially the same?
I suggested that we read 1 Corinthians 15, where St. Paul defends the belief in the resurrection of the body and the soul. In silence, visibly and deeply absorbed, Kevork read that chapter not once but several times. Then joyfully shouted, “So Christianity is materialist!” The darkness had lifted, because in St. Paul’s teaching Kevork had discovered what he had hoped would be there but had not found in the book on reincarnation: the assurance that he would see his son again, recognize him, and be able to love him in an embrace of the resurrected flesh. In the person of Jesus Christ, God’s love is manifested as life. Jesus’ resurrection proclaims the triumphant power of love and life over death.
(Vigen Guroian, Life’s Living Toward Dying, pp. 27-28)