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The Cross ~ The Tree of Life

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 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 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:

Greatly saddened was the Tree of Life when it beheld Adam stolen away from it; it sank down into the virgin ground and was hidden to burst forth and reappear on Golgotha....

Under the Old Covenant the Tree of Life continued to remain hidden from humanity, and it was only with the Crucifixion that it was finally made manifest.

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 Tree of the Cross has borne a fruit that gives eternal life unto the world; and as we eat of it, O Christ, we are delivered from death. (The Lenten Triodion)

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.

The Church is revealed as a second Paradise, having a tree of life, as the first Paradise of old: by touching Thy Cross, O Lord, we share in immortality! (The Lenten Triodion).

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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