In the Middle of Lent Gazing at The Cross
Mid-Lent is a special time in Orthodox Christian Churches. We pause to remember the cross, as we do several other times in the year besides Good Friday. These other days cannot help but be remembered on the Third Sunday of Lent, though their content does not dominate the day.
On August 1st we remember a special procession in Constantinople from the year 641. This is peculiar to the Orthodox Church.
September 14th is Holy Cross Day, however, which is shared with many churches. It commemorates the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the year 335, which was commissioned by the Emperor Constantine on a site identified by his mother St Helen who believed it to be the site of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. The original building was destroyed later. The main building now on that site dates from 1048, but extensive renovations have added or rebuilt portions of it since that time, most recently in the 187os. Significantly Orthodox Christians know it as the Church of the Resurrection and it is the seat for the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to this day.
The Third Sunday of Lent, however, is set aside not to commemorate historic events but to contemplate the holy Cross.
On this Sunday we festoon a special cross with flowers and herbs. It is carried in procession to a table in the center of the church where it rests for our veneration and contemplation. The texts read for the day encourage us to continue the pathway of fasting, prayer, and charity through to the end of the Lenten season, which brings us to Easter (called Pascha in the Orthodox Church).
Special hymns this Sunday include one that says, “we venerate your cross, O Master, and we glorify your holy resurrection.” This hymn is indicative of the Orthodox understanding of Christianity. We do not end with sadness and gloom at the death of Jesus but we press on to the hope signaled by the Resurrection “on the third day.” That note reflects the difference between the two names for that ancient Church in Jerusalem.
The Gospel for the day is a familiar one from St Mark 8, where we are invited to take up the cross in emulation of Christ himself. I suspect this is a greatly misunderstood passage. Often people refer to the cross they must bear as something they have taken upon themselves, some special mission or ministry that dropped into their lap – like caring for sick children of aging parents. Careful reading of the passage, however, reveals the cross not as a task we identify for ourselves; it is a yoke Christ places upon us, that we had no idea about in advance but that we are called to accept as part of our Christian walk through life. Since early times this yoke connected to martyrdom, to risking death itself in bearing witness to the faith. Later it came to mean remaining steadfast in the faith over the course of a life that may not end in actual martyrdom.
Which brings us back to the Third Sunday of Lent when we look ahead on the pathway to the end of Lent, and that reminds us of the pathway we walk to the end of life. It is not easy to be a Christian. Those not in the faith think that we have the answers covered to our satisfaction, but those of us who walk the pathway know that every day is a struggle, every doubt is a challenge, and every step is a risk. But then again, if we follow Jesus of Nazareth, what else can we expect?