This Sunday, the third of Great Lent, is the Sunday of the Cross. On Saturday evening the Cross, decorated with flowers, is brought from the Holy Altar into the center of the church where it will be venerated by the faithful throughout the fourth week of the Fast.
Hymns to the Cross are scattered throughout the various services of the Orthodox Church. There are hymns daily at the Ninth Hour (3PM) because at that hour our Lord through the Cross opened the way to Paradise. There are hymns to the Cross (and the resurrection) at Matins on Sunday as each Sunday is a “little Pascha”. There is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. And finally there is this Third Sunday of Great Lent.
One of the major themes in these hymns, appearing again and again, is the Cross of the Lord as the Tree of Life. In Genesis, “In the beginning….”, we are told that God planted a garden, a Paradise, in which He placed the man and the woman He had created. In Paradise were all manner of trees and plants, but two trees in particular are brought to our attention: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.
In a beautiful and mystical interpretation of the Genesis story, St Ephrem the Syrian describes Paradise as a mountain-temple. The lower regions, where Adam and Eve began, correspond to the narthex and then the nave of a Church. At the boundary between the nave and the altar - which we would associate with the Holy/Royal Doors - St Ephrem sees the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This Tree, then, is a gate of entry into the Holy of Holies. When they were spiritually prepared, and not before, Adam and Eve would have been granted entrance into the sanctuary. Once there they would have been given to eat the sacred fruit of the Tree of Life, and would have become immortal.
Now, what is this tree and what is its fruit? We could spend a fair amount of time reading the mystical interpretations of Paradise found in the writings of the Fathers, and they are beautiful. But as we did not abide in Paradise but were banished through sin, we must turn our attention elsewhere to find the Tree of Life and its Fruit. Let us hear, then, St Ephrem:
The Cross is the Tree of Life. Let us be clear. The Cross is not a symbol of the Tree of Life, not a figure of the Tree of Life: it is the Tree of Life. And the fruit of Tree?
The Fruit of the Tree of Life that gives immortality to those who eat of it is the Body of Christ. What Adam was denied in Paradise because of sin is given to us in the Liturgy, and eating it we partake of Divine Life. And thus, on this Sunday, almost halfway through the journey of Great Lent, do we venerate the Holy Cross.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
I died through a tree,
but have found a Tree of life in thee,
O Cross of Christ!
Thou art my invincible protector and
strong defense against the demons.
As I venerate thee today I cry aloud:
Sanctify me by thy glory!
Of old, our parents did not fast
according to the Creator's command
and received death as a fruit of the
tree of knowledge.
They were banished from the tree of
and from the sweetness of Paradise!
Therefore, faithful, let us fast from
corrupting snares, from harmful
so that we may acquire life from the
and return with the good thief to our
receiving great mercy from Christ our
Come, let us drink living waters
flowing from the Tree of Life,
as we behold before us the holy Cross,
the fountain of blessings, the spring of
blood and water,
flowing from the life-giving side of the
Of His Own will He was lifted up
upon the Cross,
raising up mankind and drawing us to
~The Lenten Triodion