Having arrived, with God’s grace, to the middle of the great fast, our compassionate Mother – the Holy Orthodox Church – thought fit to reveal to us the Holy Cross as the joy of the world and power of the faithful to help us carry on the struggles of the divine fast. We read in the Matins service: “This is the day of veneration of the Precious Cross. Now it is placed before us and shines with the brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. Let us all draw near and kiss it with great rejoicing in our souls” (Matins, Canticle One).
We now find ourselves midway through our great Lenten journey, a spiritual struggle that began several weeks ago. Perhaps by now, the body is tired of the work of asceticism, i.e. fasting and prayer. For this reason, it is no coincidence that at this precise time, at the midway point of our journey to Pascha, the Holy Church directs our gaze towards the Lord’s Cross, towards His sacrificial suffering and death upon the Cross.
On this particular Sunday, there is a kind of waiting and anticipation for the Cross on which the Saviour will be raised on Good Friday, before we share in the joy of His Resurrection. We read in the service of the Matins: “Cleansed by abstinence let us draw near, and with fervent praise let us venerate the all-holy wood on which Christ was crucified, when He saved the world in His compassion” (Matins, Canticle Five).
To follow the Orthodox calendar is to witness the Holy Church celebrating the Holy Cross twice a year, the first being September 14th, a historical event pertaining to when St. Helena discovered the wood of the Holy Cross, which was then raised by Patriarch Makarios in the midst of praise, “Lord, have mercy.” The second time is a celebration with deep spiritual meaning, in the midst of the holy Lenten period, where the Church strengthens us and reminds us that fasting, prayer, and all acts of asceticism are nothing but our cross that we carry in order to participate in the Lord’s suffering and eventual Resurrection. We are reminded that the path towards Resurrection must inevitably pass-through Golgotha, meaning the ‘Crucifixion’.
“Seeing the Precious Cross of Christ placed this day before us, let us venerate it and rejoice in faith; with love let us greet the Lord, who by His own free choice was crucified upon it, asking Him to grant us all uncondemned to adore His Holy Passion and to attain the Resurrection” (Matins, Exaposteilarion).
The biblical reading on this Sunday is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8:34-38, 9:1.
The evangelical passage does not speak of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus as read on Good Friday, nor as it is read on September 14th during the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but the evangelical passage here speaks of the spiritual meaning of the Cross in our lives.
The Lord said: “If any man would 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”.
Here, the Lord Jesus speaks of the conditions of discipleship: “If any man would come after Me”. To decide to follow Him and be one of His disciples is one’s free and personal decision. Christ respects our free will, as it is God’s image in human beings. To follow Jesus is a decision you make on your own, and to be a disciple of Jesus is an exercise of free will, not an obligation required of you such as mandatory military service.
And if you choose to follow Him, the next condition is: “Let him deny himself”. Self-denial means to deny ourselves our passions by removing oneself from the centre of this world and setting the Lord Jesus at the centre of one’s life. To keep Christ at the centre of one’s life means that everything in it will take its correct place and position.
After that, there is a calling to take up our cross: “Take up his cross and follow Me”. The cross, here, is understood in several ways. For the Christian in this blessed period, the cross is represented as fasting, prayer and prostrations, as well as the cross of temptations, trials, and pains that the Christian surely encounters throughout their life, enduring with patience.
For “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
The word “Psyche” comes from Greek and can be translated as “life”. Certainly, the Lord is not talking about the destruction of the soul or life, in the sense of losing it or killing it, but here He is talking about sacrifice. Whoever wants to save himself, that is, to gain eternal life, let him destroy it through the labours of asceticism, spiritual strife, and enduring hardships. Everyone who labours for the sake of the good news (Evangelion) and for the sake of the Master will obtain eternal life.
The act of witnessing, for Christ, is necessary for every believing Christian. The believer is not ashamed that Christ, the Son of God, was crucified. The Apostle Paul says: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). The Cross was in fact a shameful symbol from a human viewpoint, and it is true that it is written, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). However, after the Resurrection of Christ, the Cross became called “the life-giving Cross.” We chant during Sunday Vespers: “Hail! Life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise, succour of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. Through you the curse is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to heaven: invincible weapon, adversary of demons, glory of martyrs, true ornament of holy monks, haven of salvation bestowing on the world great mercy.”
The Gospel passage ends with: “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.” Is this a reference to His disciples who saw the glory of the Lord on Mount Tabor on the day of His Transfiguration immediately after this chapter? Or to all those who witnessed His crucifixion and the miraculous events that accompanied it, His death and His glorious Resurrection?
The Cross became a symbol of Christian Salvation. The deeper we comprehend the meaning of the suffering of our Master, the deeper we understand the meaning of our own suffering, our own Cross. Many times, while we are in the midst of trial or temptation, we ask: Why, Lord, has this heavy lot befallen me? We gaze at His Cross to teach us to accept hardship and suffering with patience and humility.
The Lord on His Cross gives us not only an example, but also strength. So, by looking to His Cross and remembering His salvific pain and suffering, we can draw courage and strength when we come to our own personal pain and suffering as we continue our journey towards the Holy Resurrection.
The Saviour, as He looks down upon us from the Cross, calls upon every one of us to follow His example and not to renounce our Cross, but to bear it so that it opens to us the doors of salvation. “We kiss the Holy Cross, O Christ, which You were pleased to bear upon Your shoulders, on which You have accepted to be lifted up and crucified in the flesh; and from it we receive strength against our invisible enemies” (Matins, Canticle Six).
“Your Cross do we adore, O Master, and we glorify Your holy Resurrection”. Amen.