A blessed Easter week to all of you in the Western tradition, whether you are Protestant or Roman Catholic. Christ is risen!
This year on the Eastern Christian calendar, Pascha (Easter) is an entire four weeks later than in the West. Some years we celebrate on the same day, and other times our calendars diverge by a week or two. I can never remember the reasons for the variations, but no matter when you celebrate, the good news is that Christ is still risen!
For Orthodox Christians, today we are now a little more than halfway through Great Lent. Then in two and a half weeks the beauty and intense focus of Holy Week will begin, followed by the glory of Pascha.
Stuck in the Doldrums
But that’s in the future, and on some days that future feels far in the distance. For now, we’re stuck in the doldrums of mid-Lent.
In seafaring terms, the doldrums are an equatorial region of the ocean filled with calms, squalls, and light winds that shift unexpectedly. In other words, it’s not a place of smooth sailing, and neither is the middle of the Lenten journey. At this point of the fast, any sense of novelty is long gone, and lofty personal goals have been reevaluated or maybe even abandoned.
Have you noticed that secular society doesn’t adjust to our spiritual efforts during Great Lent? In fact, as spring arrives, activities and obligations often multiply. Students are buried under term papers, tests, and sports or theater practice, and for those in the working world, job stress can intensify with new projects and deadlines. Trying to find a nourishing Lenten meal when we’re on the go is at least as difficult as carving out more time for prayer.
Even our devout Protestant and Catholic loved ones don’t understand, because their churches either ignore Lent completely or approach it in a much less rigorous way than Orthodox folks do. This season on the Church calendar always reminds me of that bumper sticker that says, “Orthodoxy: Christianity. Only Tougher.” We pray, “Lord, have mercy,” and at this point we really mean it, because some days we lose sight of the reasons for all our efforts.
Why are we doing this? Why the extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? As the days roll by, our priorities shift: Maybe I’ll lose weight! Maybe those health-and-wealth preachers on TV are right, and if I give more money, God will bless me with more stuff! It’s easy for us to focus on the concrete, measurable aspects of the fast rather than squishy, changeable things like spiritual growth.
Vegan meal—check. Oreos for dessert—They’re vegan, right?—check. Extra $20 in the offering plate for Sunday’s featured ministry—check. Arrived late but attended Great Compline on Monday—check.
It’s so much easier to check these boxes than to repent and turn our hearts back, back, and back again to the Lord. In the worst moments of struggle, we begin to think that Lenten “success”—whatever that means—depends on our own willpower.
So, how’s that willpower working this year? Maybe you’ve seen victory in some areas, only to be discouraged by failure in others.
I know that’s the case for me. I began preparing this blog post before the beginning of Great Lent, but I don’t need a gift of prophecy to tell you with confidence that by the time these musings show up on the Ancient Faith platform, I will have fallen flat on my face in every area of ascesis. Even with the gracious and realistic guidance of my spiritual father, I’ve stumbled in my prayer rule and my spiritual reading. I’ve skipped some of the weeknight services that I planned to attend, at home we’ve missed more than a few family Lenten devotionals at dinnertime, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t always made it to the weekend before pouring a glass of wine. Or two.
Yes, my failings are that predictable. And I’m guessing that’s true for you too.
A Sign Set in the Middle of Lent
It is no coincidence that the Church celebrated the Sunday of the Holy Cross a few days ago. If you’ve been traveling this Orthodox path for a while, you know that everything the Church does has deep meaning behind it. Your parish may have made adjustments this year, depending on the state of the pandemic in your area, but normally on this Sunday, the Cross stands in the middle of the church as a reminder of Christ’s Crucifixion on Holy Friday as well as His words in Matthew 10:38: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Lent is a period when, as Galatians 5:24 reminds us, “we are crucified with Christ.” As we look upon the Cross at this midpoint of the fast, the Church gently shifts our weary, distractible gaze from our faith, our efforts, back to Christ.
This refocusing is not designed to make us feel guilty; it is meant to bring us refreshment and encouragement, which is a different emphasis than the other Sundays dedicated to the Cross during the liturgical year—the Veneration of the Cross on September 14 and the Procession of the Cross on August 1. In a few weeks Holy Friday will be upon us, and then we will meditate deeply on Christ’s suffering.
But the focus on this Sunday, in the middle of Lent, is not so much on Jesus’ suffering but on the victory of the Cross. Listen to the words of the day’s hymnology:
No longer does the flaming sword guard the gate of Eden, for a marvelous quenching is come upon it, even the Tree of the Cross. The sting has been taken from death, and the victory from Hades. And, You, my Savior, have appeared unto those in Hades saying: Enter again into Paradise.
The synaxarion of the day states, “Since the Holy Cross is also called the tree of life, and this tree has been planted in the center of Paradise, in the same way the Holy Fathers have planted the tree of the Cross in the center of the Great Lent so we can eat from it and live forever.” Like a branching, fruitful tree, the Cross is a source of shade and relief, a reminder to us that Adam walked with God in the cool of the Garden and then fell away from that intimate relationship with our Creator. We too have strayed away from God, and through the life-giving tree of the Cross, Christ has conquered death and restored our communion with the Father.
The precious Cross also points us to our Lord’s example. The article “Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross” from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese notes that the Cross “encourages us to follow Him in struggle and sacrifice, being refreshed, assured, and comforted. . . . The Cross teaches us that through pain and suffering we shall see the fulfillment of our hopes: the heavenly inheritance and eternal glory.”
This celebration brings into perspective our own small sacrifices, inconveniences, and difficulties. In our more honest moments, we see the hardness of our hearts and our preference for going our own way. We realize that we are lost in a wilderness of our own making, like the children of Israel wandering the desert. As the article explains:
The Fast can be likened to the spring of Marah whose waters the children of Israel encountered in the wilderness. This water was undrinkable due to its bitterness but became sweet when the Holy Prophet Moses dipped the wood into its depth. Likewise, the wood of the Cross sweetens the days of the Fast, which are bitter and often grievous because of our tears. Yet Christ comforts us during our course through the desert of the Fast, guiding and leading us by His hand to the spiritual Jerusalem on high by the power of His Resurrection.
On the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, a small hand cross is placed on a tray of daffodils or, in some traditions, basil, and is processed through the church as the people chant, “We venerate Your Cross, O Christ, and Your holy Resurrection we glorify.”
Daffodils, one of the first bulbs to bloom in spring, remind us of nature being reborn, and thus they remind us of the Resurrection. We are fatigued, we are weary, we are discouraged, yet even in the doldrums of mid-Lent, we can see Pascha on the distant horizon. Seeing the Cross, we remember the Resurrection. An empty tomb awaits, filled with the light of hope.
In his wonderful book Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory writes,
When a king is coming, at first his banner and symbols appear, then he himself comes glad and rejoicing about his victory and filling with joy those under him; likewise, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is about to show us His victory over death, and appear to us in the glory of the Resurrection Day, is sending us in advance His scepter, the royal symbol—the Life-Giving Cross—and it fills us with joy and makes us ready to meet, inasmuch as it is possible for us, the King Himself, and to render glory to His victory. [Great Lent, Ch. 4: The Lenten Journey]
Until then, we press onward, and the daily Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim drives home the spiritual reality that our prostrations illustrate: I fall on my face, but by God’s grace, I get up again.