Third Sunday of Lent
(Veneration of the Holy Cross)
Mark 8:34–38; 9:1
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth […] and the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, where He placed the man He had formed […] and in the middle of the garden was the tree of life” Gen. 1:1, 2:8–9
Three weeks ago, the period of Great Lent began with the Sunday of Forgiveness, on which we commemorate Adam and Eve’s exile from Paradise: not only to remind us why Christ came to earth, but in order for us to start our Lenten journey headed for the right destination.
Every time we Christians pray, we turn towards the East, facing the Paradise of Eden, which was planted in the Orient, and in this way prayer constitutes a literal re-orientation of the human person. With the period of Lent, the Church calls us to this same re-orientation. In this blessed period, during which we abstain from all animal products, the Christian ceases to exploit and partake in death, and with the intensified effort to cultivate a spirit of obedience and to struggle against the passions, we also distance ourselves from the spiritual consequences of the Fall.
The basic and very simple message of Lent, then, is the following: if you so desire, your life can become paradise. And this is why, having reached the middle of Lent, the Church has placed in the middle of this lenten paradise the Tree of Life, the Precious Wood of the Cross of the Lord: the symbol of victory, hope, freedom, strength, and the deep and self-sacrificial love of God for mankind.
I refer to the Cross, among other things, as a symbol of hope, not only in the sense that the salvific work of the Lord took place on the Cross historically speaking, but because it shows us that God is a God of transfiguration and transformation, a God of healing and restoration. God used death to conquer death, and in this way transformed death itself into a way to eternal life. When Christ was confronted with the Roman Cross — that instrument of torture, death and shame — he didn’t break it to pieces, even though he could have. Instead, he takes it up and transforms it into an instrument of life and honour, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:25), in Christ “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16), and “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (23:12), “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and for the gospel will save it” (Mk. 8:35).
The Cross is a symbol of hope because it bears witness to the fact that God seeks out and makes use of the imperfect, the broken, the evil. It bears witness to the fact that Christ “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mk. 2:17). Whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we have done, if we take up our Cross and follow the Lord, if we plant the Holy Cross at the centre of our lives as a tree of life, our life can be transformed into a paradise of light. And not just later on after death, but even this present life can become a foretaste of the coming Kingdom.
“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Fr Kristian Akselberg