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Third Sunday of the Great Fast

In the Byzantine Church's liturgical cycle there are no surprises. Just a few short days after the Nativity fast begins, we are singing "Christ is Born" as the katavasia of the feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the temple. On the feast of St. Nicholas the dogmatikon at vespers sings to the cave, the manger, the shepherds, the magi and about the Virgin Mother. During the pre-feast, or the last few days before the Nativity, the services elaborate on and sing about the birth of Christ. The gospel about Christ's actual birth is read during the Royal Hours at the Third Hour and at the Divine Liturgy for Christmas eve. On the feast day itself the gospel read at the Liturgy is already about the arrival of the magi.

That same anticipation is true now, even in the middle of the great fast. The Cross is in the center of the church, and four weeks before Pascha we are singing: "We bow to Your Cross, O Lord, and we praise Your Holy Resurrection. Again there are no surprises. The canon at matins for the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross is actually a paraphrase of the Paschal canon itself; and it's irmos, during Matins in the Byzantine tradition, is that of the Paschal canon: "This is the day of Resurrection." There is no doubt that Christ is risen and that we are in preparation to celebrate that event. We don't make believe, on Pascha, that His Resurrection, or at the Nativity, that his birth are a surprise!

The Synaxarion, or instruction read, for the Sunday of the Cross acknowledges that we may be filled with a sense of bitterness or depression at this point in the fast because we, too, are trying to "crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts." Thus the Cross is presented to us as an example. Out of gratitude we are moved by the cross to imitate Christ in His suffering and sacrifice. There is no Resurrection without the Cross.

Those who walk along the path of a long and difficult journey, bowed down by exhaustion, find relief during their journey under the cool shadow of a tree that they encounter on their way. Thus have our holy fathers planted the life-giving tree of the Cross in the midpoint of the fast for our comfort and refreshment. But the Cross is also a banner or sign of victory for Christ the Conqueror. For just as an earthly king comes last in a triumphal procession, being preceded by his royal signs, trophies and emblems of victory, so the Sunday of the Cross warns and prepares us for the coming of Christ our King with his glorious and triumphant Resurrection.

The tree of the Cross also reminds us of the two trees in the garden of Eden. For it was from the tree of the "knowledge of good and evil" in the midst of the garden, in an act of gluttony, that Adam and Eve ate, disobeying God's one commandment to fast from it, and thus they inherited death. They were then driven out of paradise and prevented access to the tree of life as a mercy of God so that they would not have to live forever in their fallen, painful and ever degenerating condition. "And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken." (Gen. 3:22-23)

Thus the Cross, which is also called "the tree of life," is placed in the midst of Great Lent as in the midst of the garden. For the fruit of this tree of the Cross, Christ Himself, restores us to that paradise of old and by partaking of him we are given life. Jesus said, "Amen, Amen, I say to you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whosoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:53-54) Adam's condemnation is abolished by the Sacrifice of Christ on the cross and those descendants of Adam, who believe in Christ, shall never have to encounter death, but shall be given everlasting life.

Often, with great enthusiasm, we enter the time of Great Lent. We make resolutions, give up things, and follow the fasting and abstinence practices of the Church. We plan to sustain our efforts by more time given to prayer, Scripture, spiritual reading, and attending the services. As the time passes, however, we find ourselves succumbing to our weaknesses and the temptations coming to us from the entertainment and advertising media as well as the fast food restaurants we encounter every day. The crown of our efforts, having purified our senses, is to behold the Lord's Passover (Pascha) with spiritual insight. May we all obtain that crown and be found worthy to celebrate Christ's holy Resurrection. May we be found to be faithful witnesses to Christ all our lives and so attain to eternal life.

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