by Father Sergei Sveshnikov
Today we have reached the midpoint of Great Lent; we have travelled half of our path to the Holy Pascha of our Lord. Having come to the center of Lent, we piously venerate the life-giving Cross of Christ. In the synaxarion for today we read that since the Cross is the Tree of Life, and this tree was planted in the center of the Garden of Eden, in the same way the holy fathers placed the Tree of the Cross in the middle of Great Lent, reminding us of Adam’s fall. At the same time we are delivered from the fall through the tree, for partaking of it we no longer die, but inherit life. In the services for this day, the Cross of Christ is hailed as the “invincible weapon,” “door to Paradise,” succor of the faithful,” and the “rampart set about the Church” (verses for “Lord, I have cried…”). Why is this so? Why is the tool of a torturous death sentence hailed by the Church as a banner of victory? Why do Christians wear that, which the world sees as a symbol of shameful death, with such piety?
Let us consider! Not only the word of the Cross of Christ sounds as foolishness to the dying world (1 Cor. 1:18), but the whole Gospel message sounds to the “wise” ones of this world as a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23). Christ rejects that which is praised by the world: glory, wealth, and power (Matt. 4:3-10). Are these not the very things that the world around us worships? Are these not the very things that the earthly rulers promise to us? But this is not what Christ gives to us: He gives us the Cross. “If anyone would come after Me,”—says the Lord, “he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and the entrance into this kingdom lies not through a triumphal arch, but through the narrow gate of carrying the Cross (Matt. 7:14).
What does it mean to deny yourself? This means to deny the falsehood about yourself that the sinful world feeds to you, to take off the props of deceit, to wash off the fake paint, and to see yourself as you are. Saint Isaac of Syria wrote that “when the world completely strips a man of everything and carries him out of his house on the day of his death, then the man finds out that the world is a flatterer and a liar.” The world does everything it can to help us spend our lives chasing after worldly “good,” to help us forget about God and about our eternal soul. “Deny all falsehood” (cf. Mark 8:34), says Christ, “and you will gain your true self (cf. Matt. 16:25), you will find salvation.”
“Friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (James 4:4). Christ leads us against the world and worldly “wisdom”: having been born in the house of a carpenter and not an emperor, in a cave and not a palace, dining with sinners and not nobility, having chosen fishermen and not doctors of theology for His apostles, the Savior ascended onto a cross and not a throne. But it is not for the reason of a stubborn contradiction to the world that Christ willingly accepted suffering and death, but because the path to Pascha lies through crucifixion.
The Cross of Christ is dear to us because without it there is no Resurrection. And only he, who is ready to be crucified with Christ, can become an heir in the resurrection in Christ. We glorify the Cross of our Lord today because, having been watered with the Savior’s Blood, the Cross is no longer a tool of death but the Tree of Life.
Saint Theophan the Recluse writes “that where there is a Christian, there is the cross, and where there is no cross, there is no Christian.” Today, at the half-point of Great Lent, let us examine ourselves: do we crucify the sins of our flesh, do we carry the cross in our hearts, is there in our souls a denial of self and of worldly passions? If not—neither is there a Christian there.
You, who keep the fast with diligence! May God bless your efforts and strengthen you to carry your cross, in order that your joy be multiplied on the day of the bright resurrection of Christ in anticipation of His glorious second coming!
You, lazy and neglectful! One half of the path is completed, but the merciful Lord accepts those who come to Him in the sixth hour with a pure heart. Run to Him, hurry to venerate His Cross, lest you find yourselves with the foolish virgins who missed the coming of the Divine Groom and were left outside of the wedding banquet (see Matt. 25:11).
“We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy holy Resurrection!”