FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT THROUGH THE CROSS OF OUR SAVIOR
"We worship Thy Cross, O Christ, and praise and glorify Thy Holy Resurrection. For Thou art our God and we know none other beside Thee, and we call upon Thy name…" (Matins).
The 40 day Lenten season is viewed by the Orthodox Church as a journey, similar to the 40 year journey of the chosen people from Egyptian slavery and self-worthlessness through the challenge-abundant desert and to Canaan, the Promised Land. The journey could have been much shorter, but the 40 year time was necessary in order to erase the mentality of slavery and worthlessness, which could only be achieved through a renewal of generations.
The "Desert Academy," with Moses as its "dean," taught the people about the power and greatness of their God, who destroyed along the way their worst enemies, beginning with Pharaoh himself and his fierce army. In order to provide a safe passage for his people, Moses struck the Red Sea vertically with his staff and the water parted; upon reaching the other side, he then struck the water horizontally, restoring the normal flow of the Sea and destroying their enemies at the same time. These two motions (vertical and horizontal) prefigure the sign of the Cross, which will protect Christians (the new chosen people) against their spiritual enemies and guide them to salvation.
Having been subjected to hunger, thirst and other life threatening perils, the chosen people also learned about their dependency on God and about His unwavering commitment to His promise. The manna that came down from heaven prefigures Christ Himself and eating the manna was a form of non-sacramental communion with God: "I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and are dead. This is the bread that comes down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world" (John 6: 48-51).
But Great Lent also reminds us about the 40 days of fasting and prayer spent by our Lord and Savior in the desert, before He began His public ministry. This He did in order to liberate our human nature from its communion with the world (introduced through original sin) and re-establish its dependency and communion with God: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mat. 4: 4).
The Church Fathers embraced the idea of desert as a form of renouncing the world and total dedication to spiritual transformation through fasting, prayer and contemplation. Taking into account these historical considerations, it is quite appropriate to see ourselves, throughout our earthly existence and especially during the Lenten seasons ordained by the Church, as pilgrims, journeying towards our final destination: the eternal kingdom of God. As a "new Israel," we have the great advantage of being lead by our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God who Himself made the journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha, into the depths of the earth and then back at the right hand of God the Father, restoring in the process the dignity of our human nature, which He assumed in the redeeming act of Incarnation. Not only do we know the way ("I am the way, the truth and the life") but we also have the Church, established by Christ Himself, which He endowed with His divine teachings and the Sacraments so that we may receive the grace of the Holy Spirit and be guided across the stormy sea of life to the shore of salvation.
It is worth noting that almost every hymn of the Resurrection Canon makes reference to events and people of the Old Testament and the reason has to be found in the fact that the Lord's Resurrection is the fulfillment of God the Father's promise to send a Savior for those who, for ages, were waiting "in darkness and the shadow of death," and, at the same time, the beginning of a new era: the era of hope and Grace.
The Orthodox custom on Easter night, whereby the main celebrant (hierarch or priest) comes out of the Holy Altar holding together the cross and the lit candle(s) and addressing the midnight invitation "Come and receive the light," conveys a powerful message: the light of Resurrection without the Cross was not possible. In other words, it was through the Cross (the voluntary Passion) of our Lord and Savior, His descent into Hades and victory over death and the forces of darkness that light "from the unwaning Light" is now offered to the whole world as a gift of victory and spiritual joy. To emphasize this intrinsic relation between the Cross and the Resurrection light, during the Easter Liturgies, as the Cherubic hymn is sung, the priest, holding the cross and the lit Pascal candle, censes the whole church and greets the faithful three times with the paschal greeting "Christ is risen!" At the conclusion of the Liturgy, the priest does the same.
Having completed the Lenten journey, which required self-denial, taking up of the cross, humility, abstinence, prayer and acts of compassion, love and repentance, the faithful are now worthy to partake in the light of Christ's Resurrection and are sent out to fulfill their mandate as "the light of the world" (Mat. 5:14-16).
They all carry lit candles and, in the darkness of night, their shinning faces become living icons of people liberated from sin, death and the forces of darkness. The Lord's Resurrection has restored their sonship and communion with God. The divine promise is now reality, which is felt deeply by every soul and is manifested through brotherly embraces and mutual exchanges of the angelic greeting "Christ is risen," and the assurance-filled response: "Indeed He is risen!"
Since the Lord's Resurrection is commemorated every Sunday (the Day of the Lord), at Matins, immediately following the reading of one of the eleven Resurrection gospels, the priest brings out the Gospel Book and places it on the stand, in the center of the church, while singing the hymn of the Resurrection, which again addresses the invitation "Come, all ye faithful, let us worship Christ's Holy Resurrection," as well as the theological Easter message: "For behold, through the Cross, joy has come to the whole world."
How blessed are we, the children of Orthodoxy, to be invited every time we come to participate in the Eucharistic celebration, to replenish and nourish our souls with the joy of the Lord's Resurrection and with the Risen Christ Himself in the Sacrament of Holy Communion: "With the fear of God, with faith and love draw near!"
The Cross and the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior have made all these possible and the Church invites us to join in the cosmic celebration and gratitude to our loving God, singing the hymn of victory:
"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."
CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!
Fr. George Bazgan