Encouragement Sunday: Focus on the Cross
by Fr. James C. Meena
The third Sunday of the Great Fast is the Sunday that has been marked by the Fathers of the Church to be called the "Veneration" or "Adoration" of the Holy Cross. Every year at this time the Church holds up the Cross of Christ before the eyes of the faithful in order to remind them that we are in the midst of this Lenten season and that the Church is conscientiously aware of the realities that we, being human, at this time are going to be more vulnerable to the temptations brought on by our human weakness. If we have made a resolution to abstain during the Great Fast, now is the time, at the midpoint of Great Lent, that we are most tempted to give up on our resolve. For this reason the Church raises its "banner," the Cross of Christ, and encourages us to be steadfast, to persist in our resolve to impose these disciplines upon ourselves for our own spiritual benefit and our continuing spiritual maturity. It is for this reason that I like to call this day "Encouragement Sunday."
Anyone who has played on an athletic team or served in the armed forces or participated in any sort of physical group activity understands that we need a rallying point from time to time. I remember basic training so well. We were out on some special maneuvers running through obstacle courses all day in the dust and heat, and when we were finished we were exhausted but we still had to march ten miles back to camp. At that moment, if somebody had wanted to make a wager with me that I could not possibly have marched those ten miles, he would have won the bet. But something happened. We had a platoon leader, a sergeant, a regular Army man who understood the psychology of group dynamics, at least as they applied to the armed forces. He called upon the guidon bearer who carried the company banner, put him up in front of the group and started us concentrating on the guidon and singing army marching songs. As we did so our spirits were lifted and strength began to pour through our exhausted and drained muscles. Not a single man dropped out of that ten mile march despite the fact that each of us was completely exhausted before we began.
So it is with the militant battle that the Church wages through us with the powers of darkness and the forces of this world that would bring us down to satanic levels. She raises Her banner before us and says: Rally around this banner! Sing your hymns of praises! Pray your prayers and offer up your songs of majesty to the Glory of God and let the power of the Holy Spirit surge through your veins, through your minds and your hearts! Be lifted up in strength and this will give you courage to persist in your determination to dedicate this period of time to God, whether it is by abstaining from eating flesh foods or whatever other discipline you may have imposed upon yourself.
Who is the person who, at one time or another, does not need to be encouraged to complete a task? Who is the person who has not started the task with great enthusiasm and with the conviction that the task would be accomplished yet, midway through its accomplishment, was ready to throw up his or her hands in frustration or in fatigue and simply give up? Or who is the person who has not completed a task simply because someone gave a word of encouragement . . . "go on . . . you can do it . . . I know you can and you know you can."? This is precisely what the Church is doing for us on this day. By raising the symbol of the greatest offering ever made in our behalf, the Cross of Christ, it reminds us of the sacrifice which He presented unto His Father in our behalf, and more than this it reminds us of the Resurrection which we are about to celebrate.
The troparion for this day, the hymn of praise which is sung by the choir and the chanters and the whole Church, points our attention to the Cross of Christ and then immediately draws our attention to the Resurrection which is forthcoming. This is so typical of the Orthodox Church which never dwells for long on the Crucifixion but is always directed at the joy and the promise of the Resurrection. "Before thy Cross O Christ, we bow down in worship," says the Troparion, "and thy Holy Resurrection we glorify."
Yes, we bow down before the Cross of Christ because we reverence its meaning and we understand the great oblation that it represents, that Jesus Christ as our great High Priest, offered Himself as a living sacrifice to His Father in order that you and I, once and for all, might be saved, might have the avenue of redemption if we would but give ourselves to Him.
St. Paul says, "Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from Him and find grace when we are in need of help," (Hebrews 4:16). The Lenten period preceding Holy Week is no different than any other period, long or short, in our life. It has its ups and its downs. I guess that the modern cultists would say that the "bio rhythms" are increased or decreased, and this happens to all of us. St. Paul urges us, as the Church urges us. Whenever our spirits are low let us lift up the Cross before us, remind ourselves of the great sacrifice which Christ made for us, open our Bibles and read of the examples of the Lord, reminding ourselves of the promise of our Resurrection through His Resurrection and our spirits will be lifted.
When I was a boy, if my father promised me something, if at any time I suspected that the promise was not going to be fulfilled I would become unhappy. The disappointment would be almost overwhelming. But if I was assured of the fulfillment of that promise, my spirits would soar and I would be joyful again. Well, our Heavenly Father in Christ Jesus has made promises; "Whosoever believeth in Me though he were dead, yet shall he live." "For God so loved the World that He gave His only begotten Son that the world through Him might be saved."
We, as recipients of that promise are reassured time and again through the liturgical life of the Church, but it is also necessary for us to remind ourselves of these things on a daily basis if we are not going to be immersed in the pit of depression, disappointments, cynicism and skepticism. Hold up the Cross of Christ because through it you will gaze into the empty tomb and beyond, to the Lord's Resurrection.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America