We Venerate Your Cross

People were fascinated by the degree of realism and downright sadism portrayed in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. The physical sufferings inflicted on the film’s Jesus were far more gruesome than anything described in the Gospels. In fact, the film relied less on the Scriptures than on visions attributed to the nineteenth century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich by her countryman, the poet Clemens Brentano.

The film and the visions it portrays have both been criticized for their departure from the Gospel. Still they stand in a tradition, particularly strong in medieval Europe, which emphasized the physical suffering of Christ in the passion more than His sinless response to the torment. Much of this emphasis stems from the medieval idea that the passion was inflicted on Christ as a punishment for our sins.

The Cross in Our Liturgy

The vision of the cross in our liturgy is very different, particularly as expressed in the Mid-week of the Great Fast when we solemnly bring it forth and venerate it. The cross is carried in procession around the church during the great doxology of orthros (matins) to the ringing of the church bells. It is surrounded with flowers which, in many churches, are distributed to the participants as they come forward to venerate the cross. The cross is considered, as in the early Church, as first of all a sign of Christ’s triumph over death: ineffable joy for those who believe in Him. As St John Chrysostom emphasized, the cross “…is the originator not so much of suffering as of passion-lessness.”

This emphasis should not surprise us if we but reflect on the hymns which we sing on this Sunday and through the week. One of the most frequently repeated is the kondakion, a veritable paean of triumph:

“The Angel’s fiery sword will no longer guard the gate of Paradise, for the Cross of the Lord has put it out wondrously. The power of Death has been broken, the victory of Hades wiped out, and You, my Savior, have stood up and called out to all those bound in Hell: “Come now; enter again into Paradise!”

The angel’s sword mentioned in the kondakion refers to the last line in the story of the fall, Genesis 3:23, 4: “…the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life”.

Other hymns of this feast reflect the same excitement. At vespers we sing:

“Hail, O life-bearing Cross, bright Paradise of the Church, Tree of incorruption! You have obtained for us the enjoyment of everlasting glory. Through you, the hosts of devils are driven out, the choirs of Angels rejoice as one, and the company of the faithful hold celebrations. Unconquerable weapon, impregnable stronghold, triumph of kings and pride of priests: grant that we may be witnesses to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection!”

At orthros we hear:

“In Paradise of old, the Enemy stripped me bare. By making me eat from the forbidden tree, he brought in death. But the tree of the Cross was planted on earth. It brought mankind the garment of life and the whole world is filled with unbounded joy. Seeing the Cross exalted, let us all cry aloud to the Lord with one voice: ‘Your temple is filled with Your glory!’”

“It is a festive day in Heaven; for Death is wiped out by the Resurrection of Christ. Once again life springs forth, and Adam is raised and exults with joy. Let us all praise the victory of the Lord.”

“Joy reigns on earth and in Heaven today, for the sign of the Cross has shone over the world; its thrice-blessed image is a fountain of eternal joy for those who venerate it.”

“Cleansed by abstinence, let us hasten with fervor to kiss and glorify the most holy wood on which Christ was crucified and saved the world in His goodness.”

“O faithful, let us cry out in joy to our God, clapping our hands with the divine praise; let us kiss the Cross of the Lord. It is a fountain of holiness for the whole world.”

“Today the Cross of Christ pours out its sweet aroma: it is the wood that blossoms forth life. Let us breathe in this pleasing scent of the Divinity, which we bless forever and ever.”

“Rejoice and dance for joy, O holy Church of God, who bows today before the thrice-blessed wood of the holy Cross of Christ. Hosts of angels in Heaven stand trembling before it.”

Perhaps most surprising are the verses of the canon chanted at orthros:

Today us the day of the resurrection! O nations, let us be jubilant! For this Passover is the Passover of the Lord, in that Christ made us pass from death to life and from earth to Heaven, we who sing the song of victory!”

Come, let us drink a new drink: not miraculously produced from a barren rock, but from the Fount of immortality springing forth from the tomb of Christ, in which we are established.

Let the God-inspired Habakkuk the prophet stand with us on the holy watch-tower. Let him point out to the radiant angel who proclaims with vibrant voice: “Today salvation comes to the world, for Christ is risen as all-powerful!”

Do you recognize it?

It is the Paschal Canon by St John of Damascus which is sung as matins on the feast of the Resurrection! This Mid-Sunday of the Fast is nothing other than an anticipation of Pascha. We venerate the cross and sing paschal hymns to encourage us to continue our ascetic efforts during the Fast. As food, drink and rest restore us physically, the veneration of the cross is meant to refresh us spiritually and strengthen us to continue our journey through the Great Fast.

Few of us would participate so wholeheartedly in a joyful celebration – wedding, anniversary, office party – without bringing something to the feast. Our joy in the cross is authentic to the degree that we bring the fruit of repentance, re-focusing our energy on the spiritual life as completely as we can during this season. We turn away from food, drink, or entertainment to signify that we are reordering our lives away from obedience to our passions (gluttony, lust, greed, etc.) in response to the gift of God’s love manifested on the cross.

St Ephrem the Syrian on the Cross

“By the holy armor of the Cross Christ the Lord has obstructed the all-consuming bowels of Hades and blocked the many snares in the mouth of the devil. Having seen the Cross, death trembled and released everyone whom she possessed with the first created man. Armed with the Cross, the God-bearing apostles subdued all the power of the enemy and caught all peoples in their nets… Clothed in the Cross as in armor, the martyrs of Christ trampled all the plans of torturers and preached with plainness the Divine Cross-bearer. Having taken up the Cross for the sake of Christ, those who renounced everything in the world settled in deserts and on mountains, in caves and became the fasters of the earth.

“What language is worthy to praise the Cross, this invincible wall of the Orthodox, this victorious armor of the Heavenly King?! By the cross the Almighty One bestowed unspeakable blessings on humanity! And so on our forehead, on our eyes, on our mouth, and on our breasts let us place the life-giving Cross. Let us arm ourselves with the invin-cible armor of Christians, with this hope of the faithful, with this gentle light. Let us open paradise with this armor, with this support of the Orthodox faith, with this saving praise of the Church. Not for one hour, not for one instant, let us forget the Cross, nor let us begin to do anything with-out it. But let us sleep, let us arise, let us work, let us eat, let us drink, let us go on our way … adorning all our members with the life-giving Cross.”