The Sunday of the Holy Cross
“The Sunday of the Holy Cross is the Third Sunday of Great Lent, also called Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. On this Sunday, services includes a special veneration of the Cross, which prepares the faithful for the commemoration of the Crucifixion during Holy Week and the holy Resurrection.
Each of the Sundays of Great Lent has its own special theme. This Sunday’s theme is that in the cross of Christ crucified lies both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” for those being saved (1 Cor 1:24). On this Sunday in the middle of the Lenten season, the cross stands in the middle of the church, not merely to remind the faithful of Christ’s redemption and for them to keep the goal of their Lenten efforts, but also as a reminder: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38).
The historical theme, as seen in the hymnology, is the victory and joy of the cross, not the suffering. The Church Fathers equate the life-giving cross with the tree of life and plant it in the middle of the Lenten pilgrimage. It was the tree that was planted in Paradise; it is to remind the faithful of both Adam’s bliss and how he was deprived from it.
For the catechumens of the early church, and the faithful preparing for Pascha today, the spiritual theme starts to change from personal faith, and personal effort, to Christ. The Church teaches that it is Christ’s cross that saves. One cannot take up his own cross and follow Christ unless one has Christ’s cross which he took up to save mankind. Partaking of this tree, one will no longer die, but will be kept alive.
This is done to refresh, reassure and to encourage those participating in Great Lent. The Church equates the appearance of the cross at this time to the banners and symbols that precede the return of a victorious king.
The Epistle reading is from Hebrews 4:14-5:6 and explains Christ’s priesthood, and the Gospel lesson from Mark 8:34-9:1 ends with And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”
As at the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14, the Trisagion is replaced by the hymn:
“Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify. (Thrice)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
And Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.
Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.”
“O Lord, save Your people,
And bless Your inheritance.
Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians,
over their adversaries.
And by virtue of Your Cross
Preserve Your habitation!”
“Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden;
It has mysteriously been quenched by the wood of the Cross!
The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished;
For You, O my Savior, have come and cried to those in hell:
“Enter again into paradise.””
“In the services for this Sunday the Holy Church glorifies the holy cross and the fruits of the death of the Savior on the cross. She will carry out the holy cross into the middle of the temple for veneration, and is why the Sunday is called the Veneration of the Cross…
The purpose of instituting the Holy Cross in the service on the third Sunday will be revealed as a beautiful comparison by the Holy Church to the tree of life in paradise, the tree which sweetened the bitter waters of Marah, the tree with the canopy of leaves under whose shade tired travelers seeking the eternal promised land may find coolness and rest. Thus, the Holy Church offers the Holy Cross for spiritual reinforcement to those going through the ascetic effort of the fast, just as food, drink and rest serve as bodily reinforcement. This spiritual reinforcement is given as the representation of the love of God to man for whom the Son of God turned Himself over to death on the cross. It is especially necessary in the middle of our effort because now our ascetic efforts already have lost much of the freshness of its power and however yet cannot hopefully enliven itself for the near and successful ending of our ascetical effort. Having concentrated all that is the most severe and sorrowful in the worship services of the previous weeks, especially during the first, that may both frighten the sinner and apparently touch the hardest of human hearts, now in the middle of the large and difficult arena of the Holy Forty Day Fast the Holy Church offers the Holy Cross for great comfort and encouragement as needed for raising the flagging strength of those fasting. Wherefore nothing can both console, encourage, and inspire the fatigued, or perhaps even the Christian weakened in spirit so much as the presentation of the eternal divine love of the Savior who turned Himself over to the struggle on the cross for the sake of our salvation.
For such a purpose the Holy Church offers the cross on the third Sunday of Great Lent from of old. Many hymns of praise for this Sunday were composed by Joseph and Theodore of the Studite Monastery. Everything in the worship service of this day: the most Holy Cross, solemnly carried from the altar to the middle of the temple, the singing of the stichera for venerating the cross, the Epistle, recounting the suffering of the Savior on the cross as the means of our reconcilement with God, the Gospel, reminding the Christian about everyone’s duty to bear their cross in life, following the Crucified One on the cross, – everything that promotes the deep stamp of the cross of Christ on the heart of the believer, as a sign of our salvation, as our mighty, God-given power, saving us on earth and opening to us the entrance to the high place of our fatherland, as the highest and more powerful reinforcement of believers among the ascetics of the Holy Forty Day Fast. If the Lord suffered on a cross for our sake then we also should practice asceticism unceasingly in fasting, prayer and other efforts of piety for His sake, discharging from ourselves and destroying in ourselves all that interferes with these efforts. With the aim of our greater enthusiasm for patience in efforts of piety, the Holy Church on the present day comfortably reminds us beforehand about coming nearer “to the light of the peaceful joy of Pascha”, hymning, in the troparia of the canon, the holy cross and the suffering of the Savior on it, together with His joyful resurrection and inviting the faithful “with pure mouths” to sing “the song of joyfulness” – Irmos of Holy Pascha.”
Sergei Bulgakov “Handbook for Church Servers” 2nd ed., 1274 pp. (Kharkov, 1900) pp. 518-521. Translated by Archpriest Eugene D. Tarris, 2005. On-line at: http://transfig.orthodoxws.com/files/Bulgakov/0518.pdf