Melkite Greek Catholic Church
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN THE GREAT FAST is highlighted in the Byzantine Churches by the veneration of the holy cross. We adorn it with flowers, carry it in procession and prostrate ourselves before it. The Fast is preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ; halfway through the Fast the cross is venerated to encourage us to persevere in our efforts for this season. Honoring a cross in any way would seem ridiculous to a first-century citizen of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a humiliating disgrace and an extraordinarily painful method of execution reserved for slaves and other non-citizens, people who did not matter in Roman eyes. Yet St Paul found the cross of Christ a source of pride. “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 had become the sole source of his boasting, knowledge of Christ his sole treasure. “Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

The Ultimate Sign

For the apostles the cross represented the depth of the mystery of Christ. His passion showed the extent of His love for His people. “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). It represents the totality of His incarnation. He became man in every way, accepting suffering, abandonment, and a painful death to be one with His creatures who endure such things every day. We can never portray our Savior as a “distant God” – He has shared the totality of humanity with us while remaining one with the Father. The profundity of His descent in order to share our humanity is expressed in the term kenosis. St Paul uses it in what has become a well-beloved synopsis of the Christian’s faith in the incarnation and its meaning for us. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11). In this passage St Paul describes the condescension of the Word of God to us. The only-begotten Son and Word of God “made Himself of no reputation” by taking our nature, and then by accepting the degrading death of a convict, the cross. This self-abasement or kenosis, however, resulted in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ in glory, proclaimed as Lord by “every tongue.” St Paul saw the power of the cross uniting all peoples, even the Jews and Gentiles, separated by the barrier imposed by the Law. By His death Christ “…abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,  and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Philippians 2:15,16). Not only all peoples but all creation was affected by the cross. “… it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19,20). Through the cross Christ overcomes all the divisions and separations in creation, bringing everything to the fullness and unity which was designed at the original creation and then lost.

The Sign Rejected

Not everyone had the insight of St Paul concerning the power of the cross “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For Jews demand a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24).  The idea of God emptying Himself and being crucified appeals to no human logic. The Jews expected the Messiah to be manifested with signs of divine power: “glorious things which have never been,” according to one ancient text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the signs Jews looked for were the ingathering of all Jews into the land of Israel and an era of world peace in which there would be no hatred, oppression, suffering or disease. They generally saw the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:3-7 as referring to the people of Israel, not to the Messiah. The philosophically-minded Greeks “seek after wisdom.” There were a host of rival philosophical schools among first-century Greeks: Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Sophists, Stoics and a host of others, all based on reason and logic. Thus when St Paul spoke about the resurrection in Athens (cf., Acts 17:16-34) some mocked him, others brushed him off. The Lord was not a philosopher; curiously many Gnostics sought to make Him one, which is why many of their writings (apocryphal gospels) were rejected by the early Church.

Imitating the Cross 

As a rule, Jews today reject the notion that the Lord Jesus is the promised Messiah. Muslims teach that He only appeared to die on the cross and that God “took Him.” There are members of both groups who have a thinly disguised contempt for our display of the cross. When the president of Israel visited Pope Francis in 2015 his ultra-Orthodox assistant refused to shake the pope’s hand (he was a man) or greet him with a bow (he was wearing a cross). The pope responded by covering the cross and bowing to her. Some other ultra-Orthodox Jews were triumphant, while some traditionalist Roman Catholics were ashamed of the pope. Others saw his action as an imitation of the kenosis of Christ who humbled himself. He venerated the cross, not by displaying it, but by living it. Describing the kenosis of Christ, St Paul urged us, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). He would, no doubt, be pleased to see us reverence the cross today; he would be even more pleased to see us imitate the kenosis which brought Christ to that cross.
A Program for the Rest of the Fast
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1,2).
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.”
The Third Sunday in the Great Fast is the twenty-first day of the forty-day fast. We are half way to our Holy Week observance of the Lord’s passion and resurrection. At this mid-point the Church directs our attention to the holy cross and to Christ’s injunction, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). The cross, adorned with flowers, is brought forth for veneration as on September 14. While that feast commemorates the historical events of the finding of the cross by St Helena and its return to Jerusalem after the Persian invasion, today’s commemoration focuses on the meaning of the cross in our lives, especially during the Great Fast. We are encouraged to continue to “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24) during the rest of this fasting season.

The Gospel of the Cross

The Gospel read at the Divine Liturgy today is part of a series of five vignettes in which we see Christ coming to the end of His earthly ministry. Describing the first part of this ministry, Mark emphasizes what has been called the “Messianic secret.” As Jesus teaches and performs miracles, people are regularly told to keep silent about what He has done. First of all He must form His disciples to see Him as the Messiah, the Christ. Finally, as Jesus and His followers are walking from one village to another, “…He asked His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ So they answered, ‘John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 6:27-29). With Peter’s act of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Church is born. The Lord then begins preparing His followers to see what kind of Messiah He really is. Like many in those days, the disciples assumed that the Messiah would be a kind of Jewish Julius Caesar driving out the occupiers and restoring the kingdom to Israel. In the second vignette Jesus announces that as Messiah He will suffer, die and rise again. “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly” (Mark 8:31-32). There is no Messianic secret here. The disciples must be prepared for what is to come. This is so far from the disciples’ expectation that Peter objects. “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get behind Me, Satan – for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Mark 8:32-33). Peter objects; he knows what victorious generals – the things of men – look like. This third vignette shows that he hasn’t a clue about the things of God. Finally we come to today’s Gospel selection: the fourth vignette in this sequence. My kingdom is not what you think. Its throne is the cross and whoever wants a place in this kingdom must accept a cross as well: the cross of self denial. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once said, “The Lord has told us that in the Christian Church and in the Kingdom, a King is not one who overpowers others to exact from them unconditional and slavish obedience, but He is the one who serves and gives His life for others. “St. John Chrysostom teaches us that anyone can rule, but that no one but a king gives his life for his people, because he so identifies with his people that he has no existence, no life, no purpose but to serve them with all his life and if necessary with his death.” As followers of Christ today we may find that our stations in life will give up many opportunities for self-denial. The clergy are continually called upon to make sacrifices for the Church they have been called to serve. Monastics in their communities and spouses in their homes have daily opportunities to offer themselves for one another and the members of their families. Every Christian with open eyes will see that God gives us countless opportunities to humble ourselves for the service of others in the parish or the wider community in which we live. Taking up the cross means putting others first every day. Our changing society is increasingly giving us opportunities to shoulder the cross in a more drastic way. You may lose your job. You may lose your health. You may lose your home. You may lose your pension or your reputation. You may lose everything on which you rely. In this we look to Christ as our model. In the words of St. Paul, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11). Christians living in countries dominated by other religions or by an aggressive secularism are finding themselves increasingly isolated and discriminated against for their faith in Christ. They might find it easier to see the choice that they are called to make than we in our as yet more accepting society. Their choice may be to deny Christ or leave town. Our choice may be to affirm a neighbor’s abortion or to lose the friendship of their family. In either case these cautionary words of our Lord apply: “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. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:35-38).

Fasting and Taking Up the Cross

We still have a few weeks of the Fast remaining. They give us the opportunity to assess whether we are more committed to our small comforts or to the call of Christ. If we are so enslaved to certain foods and entertainments, how will we be able to give up something more serious for the sake of God's kingdom? The Great Fast helps us to see the depth of our willingness to take up the cross in our daily life.
REFLECT ON THIS… AND ACT ACCORDINGLY. This is the dynamic we find in the Epistle readings every Sunday during the Great Fast. We are presented with an aspect of “the mystery hidden from the ages” as a spur to recommit ourselves to the discipline of the fasting season. This Sunday is no exception; we are shown several depictions of Christ and His work and encouraged to hold fast as we enter another week of the Great Fast. On the First Sunday the Old Testament heroes were paraded before us with the reminder that they were not perfected before us – something better is at hand. “You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man” in the events of Pascha, so enter into the Fast with joy. On the Second Sunday we were reminded that the Lord Jesus is not just another preacher – He is the Son of the Father, the radiance of His glory so, “Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” And today we are presented with two more images of Christ from Hebrews to encourage us. First we are reminded that Christ, the eternal Son of God, is also totally one with us (see Hebrews 4:15). He is like us in everything, except for sin. He experienced all the trials of a human life, from the trauma of birth to that of death. He knew temptation first hand, “yet without sin”. He is not only higher than the angels, He is also completely human as well. Reflecting on Christ’s perfect identity with us led the Fathers to insist that Christ was truly and perfectly both God and man by nature. To truly heal mankind of sin and death the Physician had to be truly God. But this healing could not be accomplished from outside. God would not wave a magic wand to annul our ancestral curse. Our illness was so complete and all-pervasive that this healing could only be accomplished from within, not from the outside. For that to happen the divine Physician had to completely take up our diseased nature. By living a truly human life without sin He would conquer the results of sin in Himself and then pass it on to the rest of mankind. Many Fathers expressed their belief this way: “What was not assumed was not healed.”

The Great High Priest

The second image of Christ presented to us in this passage from Hebrews is that He is the Great High Priest of our Salvation. The book of Exodus describes in detail the arrangements for worship determined in the days of Moses. Israelite worship from that time centered on the tabernacle, a kind of portable sanctuary that they took with them on their journey to the Promised Land. The Temple at Jerusalem, constructed by King Solomon in the tenth century BC, duplicated the arrangements of the tabernacle in a permanent structure. This temple and its successor, built in 516 BC and rebuilt in 20 BC by King Herod, remained as the worship center for the Jews until its destruction by the Romans during the Great Jewish Revolt in AD 70. One of the twelve tribes, the sons of Levi, was constituted as the Israelite priesthood to serve the tabernacle/temple. Moses’ brother Aaron was named by God as the first High Priest, and his successors were chosen from among his descendants. While other priests took turns serving in the temple, the High Priest was its permanent guardian. He alone could offer sacrifices for sin, particularly on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when alone he would pronounce the unutterable name of God (Yahweh). Preceding the centuries of Roman rule the High Priest also presided over the Great Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislature. The last Jewish High Priest died in 70 AD during at the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the Jewish priests ceased offering sacrifices. Their descendants today, the Cohens, often play a ceremonial role in synagogue prayer services. The destruction of the Temple and the death of the last High Priest were the greatest tragedy to befall the Jews since their exile in Babylon 600 years earlier. Since there was no Temple and no High Priest there could be no sacrifices and therefore no way to reach God according to the Torah. But there is a High Priest, this Epistle assures the Jews, and it is the Lord Jesus Christ. Like Aaron, He was chosen by God to be High Priest in order to offer sacrifice for the sins of His people. Several times during this Epistle Psalm 110:4 is quoted: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This verse is presented as a prophecy that the Lord’s priesthood was eternal. While the Jewish High Priests would die (or be deposed), Christ would be the ultimate High Priest, always living to make intercession for the people (see Hebrews 7:25).

One Sacrifice, One Altar

The Torah prescribed that the High Priest offer animal sacrifices daily for the sins of the people. Christ, however, offers Himself as the one and perfect sacrifice: “…this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Heb 7:27). He is both the eternal High Priest and the perfect oblation. As the priest says while preparing the Lamb at the Divine Liturgy, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.” On this Third Sunday in the Great Fast the cross, adorned with flowers, is brought out for veneration. The cross is the altar on which the Lamb of God was slain and is for us a constant reminder that we live in light of His perfect oblation. The joyous hirmoi of the Paschal Canon are sung at orthros today and the glorious cross is displayed in the church throughout the week, silently echoing the injunction we hear in this Epistle: “Let us hold fast our confession …and come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:14, 16). Be steadfast in faith and in standing before the holy place in these days as we near the celebration of the eternal sacrifice of our great High Priest.

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!”

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!”

Pilate set up three crosses on Golgotha, two for the thieves and one for the Lord of life. Seeing this, Hades asked its servants: “Who has driven this spear into my heart? A wooden lance has pierced me, and I am torn apart. What pain has penetrated my womb and my heart! What sorrow stabs my spirit! I am forced to give up Adam and his children, those whom I had received from the forbidden Tree; for a new Tree leads them to enter again into Paradise.

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