Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Procession of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross

Today, August 1 (and my birthday!), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the procession of the Holy Cross of our Lord. On this day, the beginning of August which is usually the hottest month (or it was in Constantinople), the monks and clergy in Constantinople would take the true cross and process it around the city for the veneration (not worship!) of the faithful for deliverance from disease, death and enemies at the gates. The cross was processed through the city for the full 14 days of the Dormition Fast when we prepare ourselves to glorify God when He translated the Holy Virgin after her death to the Heavenly Realm.

In the Orthodox Church, every Sunday cycle of services is dedicated to the mystery of the Cross and the Resurrection, as are the hours on Wednesdays and Fridays which conclude with stavrotheotokia, the Orthodox equivalent to the Roman Catholic Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Also, on three specific days, Orthodox Christians venerate the cross: September 14, the third Sunday in Lent and August 1. Orthodox Christians sing this hymn on these days:

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all adversaries and by Thy Cross, preserve Thine estate.

Some would say that such procession of crosses and the veneration of the faithful is just some backward superstition. The cross has no power to cure disease or to save a nation-state, they say. The Cross is how we are justified with God. That is true, I will concede, but why must that be the only way to approach the Cross? Is not the Cross the source of life? Is not the cross a deliverance from disease? Did not St. Constantine conquer with the Cross as his sign and shield? Did not the defenders of Constantinople wear the cross as they battled against Moslem invaders for years? Isn't the cross more than just a token of forgiveness? When we sign ourselves with the cross, we do not merely proclaim that Christ has died and risen again for the forgiveness of sins, but we do it as a means of protecting ourselves from the cunning adversaries who are frightened of it. Why would the devil and his demons be frightened of only a token that says to a person "your sins are forgiven?" Satan can still pursue them, but the Cross is the giver of life, it is a bulwark against adversaries, both temporal and spiritual and it heals our infirmities.

Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross many times during the offices and Liturgy and private prayers. For some, I'm sure, it is done merely as a pious custom or done as something traditional. You can tell who those people are since they make the sign of the Cross so fast it looks as if they are swatting flies or something. We make the sign of the Cross upon ourselves because it shows that we are Christ's. The psalmist says, "The seal of Thy countenance has been signed upon us" (Psalm 4). We Orthodox Christians venerate the cross reverently and so so because this is what makes us His. And if we are in Christ, then there is nothing, not persecution, not revilement, not desolation, not pain, not even death that can separate us from Him. The Cross is the seal that we are the people of His pasture and the work of His hand.

The Procession of the Cross also occurs at this time two other reasons. First, we are now entering the Dormition Fast where we prepare ourselves to glorify God through His mother, when we contemplate that "strange mystery, great and mavelous" when Mary is translated unto life from death. She is the very icon and embodiment of the saved. Our Lady needed the cross as all of us sinners need it now. I don't want to rehash all the anti-Catholic polemics, but making Mary into some co-redemptrix who could never taste death because of a lack of [original] sin, makes Mary less human and into something else. She needed the cross because she was still stricken with the same mortality and corruption of nature which we have all inherited. But to prepare for this "Resurrection" we need the power of the Cross as an aid. It is the same for why we venerate the cross on the third Sunday of Lent--to be a bulwark and aid to us to continue the fast and prepare.

The second reason the procession of the cross is placed here is because of its proximity to Transfiguration. Today we chanted the Katavasiae of the Canon of the Cross as well as the kontakion of the Transfiguration. The event of the Transfiguration happened 40 days before our Lord's Crucifixion. We honor the cross today and all the things it has accomplished but we do so in the context of realizing Who it was Who was crucified, the God-Man, Jesus Christ. On Mt. Tabor, He revealed Himself as truly God and truly Man, that it was God Who was about to die on the Cross, not just some "holy man" and that such a death was a willing death, not done for some sort of honor or wrath to be appeased but for the simple reason that God loves.

Let us rejoice this day in the cross of our Lord, which heals not only our souls, but also our bodies as well.

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection, we glorify.

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