Melkite Greek Catholic Church
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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