“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself,
and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14).
In the very middle of Great Lent, the road upon which we are now traveling, the Holy Church offers us the opportunity to honor and venerate our holy Cross of the Lord. The imate of the Honorable and Life-Creating Cross of the Lord is ceremoniously brought out of the altar to the middle of the church, and we all make the three prostrations before it with the singing of the words “Before Thy cross we fall down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.”
There is profound meaning in this church ritual, with great edification for us faithful. If we conscientiously followed the first half of Lent: only ate Lenten food, ate less and less frequently, abstained from pleasures and entertainment, honestly battled our sinful tendencies and habits, we cannot but feel some degree of fatigue and even faltering of energy from the unusual exertion of will power and physical weakness. When we think that only one half of Lent has passed, some may unwillingly grumble “How hard this is! I can’t go on! When will it end?”
And so in order to lift our spirits and strengthen our will to continue observing Lent, the Holy Church offers us spiritual consolation—the Cross of the Lord is solemnly brought out for veneration.
“It is hard for you, you grumble,” the Church says, “but how difficult was it for the Lord to suffer for you, enduring unimaginable sufferings on this cross? Or do you think that His suffering was less than yours? Still, He endured all in order to save you. He did that for your sake, do this for Him, for His sake! Especially since this patience is not needful for Him or for anyone else, but specifically for you, which you need for your salvation. Remember His great love for you, which He revealed in giving Himself over to crucifixion and humiliating death, and your spirits will be lifted! His love and the miraculous power of the Cross will support you and help you complete the podvig of Lent and will bring you to the joyful, radiant feast day of the Resurrection.”
In other words, the Cross of the Lord, brought out for veneration, is our military banner, the sort historically brought out during earthly battles in order for inspiration, it is brought out for us, warriors in Christ, for our morale and courage to successfully wage battle and victory over the enemy. Beholding this glorious symbol, the symbol of victory over the devil, we feel the wave of new energies, inspiring us to continue our podvig. All the hardships and sorrows endured thus far are forgotten, and, in the words of the Apostle, we “forget those things which are behind, and reach forth unto those things which are before” (Philippians 3:13), and with greater earnestness strive for our goal—to defeat sin, to defeat the devil, in order to attain “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), where inexpressible joy awaits us, promised to us by our Savior, Who suffered upon the Cross of the Lord.
But the cross of the Lord is not only a symbol for us, but an “unconquerable weapon,” for it crushes the power of the devil, as we sing in the Holy Church: “Thou gavest us Thy Cross as a weapon against the devil, O Lord; for he trembles and quakes, unable to bear the sight of its strength.”
In the teachings of the synaxarion, the Cross of the Lord is compared with the Tree of Life of the Garden of Eden, with the wood which sweetened the bitter waters of Marah during the forty years the people of God spent in the wilderness, and also with the shade trees which gives relief to travelers on the road to the promised land of eternal life.
“Crucified together with the One crucified for us, let us mortify all fleshly temptations in fasting and prayers,” is what the Holy Church calls us to, instructing us to boldly continue the podvig of holy Lent, turning our minds to the Lord Who was crucified for our sake.
At the same time, the emergence of the Cross of the Lord for veneration during Great Lent reminds the faithful of the great days when we remember the Passions of Christ and the Brith Feast Day of the Resurrection of Christ. As a victorious general is greeted, preceded by the symbols of his victory—his emblems and trophies, so here, before the Pascha of Christ, comes the ceremonious procession of the Victor over sin, hell and death, His Life-Giving Cross. It is a living reminder that if we suffer with Christ, then with Him, too, we will be glorified—we die with Him and are resurrected with Him.
In this way, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross is a foretaste of the bright Paschal joy that awaits us, because, in glorifying the Cross of the Lord, we also praise His Resurrection, thrice singing: “Before Thy cross we fall down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.”
And so the Cross of the Lord is for us Christians a military symbol and at the same time a weapon, since Christ the Savior had nailed our sins to the Cross, and, trampling the power of the devil, granted us eternal life. That is why it is a “sign of rejoicing,” as the Holy Church calls it, and this is the only glory we can boast ourselves, as Apostle Paul said: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14).
The cross became a wellspring for us, bountifully pouring forth Divine grace upon us. But each Christian must become a participant in this saving power of the Cross of the Lord only by bearing his own cross. This is what our Teacher of endurance, Jesus Christ, clearly teaches us: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
“Our cross” is the freely-taken spiritual struggle in the life of the Christian in the world, the symbol of which is Lent, for every true Christian life is a podvig of fasting—a spiritual feat of self-restraint and abstention. Every true Christian is called to this, to be a podvizhnik, for without this there cannot be true Christianity, for we must force ourselves to every good deed and turn away from all wickedness. The Lord Himself summons us to this “ Strive to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24), for “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
From these words of Christ we clearly see how far from true Christianity are all contemporary modernists who wish to “reform” our Church and Christianity in general, who reject any limitations and restrictions and give their passions free reign.
So Christ the Savior gave us the commandment to podvig, to enter the narrow gate, that is, to endure all and to restrain our sinful passions and desires, for “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
And Holy Apostle Paul, in full accord, says “mastery is temperate in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25),” and so “I mortify my body and enslave it, else I will be enslaved,” that is, everyone must learn temperance.
The way of the cross is this very podvig of constant, complete bodily and spiritual abstinence, which is required of every earnest follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The humble endurance of all sorrows and sufferings we face on earth, the constant struggle with our sinful tendencies and the complete devotion to the will of God is the persona cross of every true Christian. Those who bear this cross emulates Christ the Cross-Bearer, and becomes a true follower of Him. And just as the Cross of Christ led to the joy of Resurrection, so the personal cross of each of us will lead to the same resurrection from the dead and eternal inexpressible joy and blessedness, the never-ending day of the Kingdom of Christ.
Great Lent is nothing other than the symbol of Christian life, and also the annual exercise of Christian living, an annual reminder of how the Christian must live, and what the final goal of his life must be.
Now we see why the enemy of God and mankind, the devil, exerts all his efforts to deprive us of this great, saving holy symbol of the Cross of the Lord, and compels us to refuse to “bear our cross,” turning us astray from following Christ.
That is why we see less frequently the image of the Cross of the Lord, which is being replaced everywhere by other symbols and emblems, leading Christians to forget the Cross of the Lord and forget to bear their own cross. Even buildings which pretend to the name “church” rarely exhibit this symbol.
The enemy wishes to tear this symbol of victory and glory from our hands, in order to disarm and vanquish us. Sorrow to anyone who gives in to imprisonment by Satan easily, to face eternal, inconsolable sorrow and suffering! Sorrow to all who join with the enemies of the Cross of Christ, and do their bidding! They will become traitors and betrayers of our Lord and Savior, and his eternal fate will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).