The Cross of Witness and Summer Lent

Today we begin our journey to “Summer Pascha,” the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary and Mother of our God, and our Mother in Christ in His Church. This is a bittersweet time, a time traditionally for blessing honey at the Feast today of the Procession of the Wood of the Cross, which also marks the Feast of our Savior and His Mother together at the start of the Fast, and of the Maccabean Martyrs whose witness comes at the end of the Orthodox Old Testament Scriptures. During the Dormition Fast, fruits traditionally are blessed on the Feast of Transfiguration, and flowers at the Dormition, two of the major feasts of the Church year at this season.

Hieromartyr Benjamin on trial before the atheist Bolsheviks, 1922
Soviet arrest photos of Hieromartyr Benjamin, 1922

At this time of witness of the Cross, on the eve of the fast yesterday, we also commemorated the New Hieromartyr Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd, and his companions. They stood for the Truth that is Jesus Christ in the face of modern mass persecutions of atheism seeking to deny our Lord’s Incarnation in the spirit of anti-Christ. In 1922, Metropolitan Benjamin, before being condemned to death because of his stand for Truth, ended a defense of the others tried with him by telling those assembled in the large Soviet courtroom: “I do not know what sentence you will pass upon me—life or death—yet whatever your pronouncement, I will raise my eyes upward with the same reverence, make the sign of the Cross (here he crossed himself broadly) and say: Glory to Thee, O Lord God, for all things!” Thus Holy Hieromartyr Benjamin bore his Cross. May he pray to Christ our God for us that we may do so also, through the intercessions of the Most Holy Mother of God!

It was through our Lord’s Mother that Jesus Christ is related bodily to the Old Testament Prophets and Martyrs and the history of Israel, like that of the Maccabees, the Israel which became after His Incarnation the Church, of which we are part, the Body of Christ, with which we partake in the Holy Eucharist. And through Her in the Church He is related to Metropolitan Benjamin and the New Martyrs and all the saints, and unworthily to us even in our humble mission, and this sinful Deacon. In the Old Testament Israel is sometimes referred to as the Bride of Christ. In the New Testament the Church is referred to as the Bride with Christ as the Bridegroom. However, also, the Ever-Virgin Mary is referred to as the Bride of God as well as the Mother of God, in a mystery that references the Persons of the Trinity Who are Three in One God, of one Essence yet Unconfused.

The Theotokos after Jesus Christ’s bodily Ascension to be with the Father remained to help intercede for and guide the development of the early Church, and at her Dormition or falling-asleep the Apostles and leaders of the Church gathered with God’s help to be with her. In Orthodox tradition this is usually called the Dormition and not the Assumption as in Roman Catholicism, because Orthodox teaching does not include the Immaculate Conception, but holds that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in regular human fashion, albeit miraculously to the aged Saints Joachim and Anna, and died as a regular human being in falling asleep, although her soul at her death according to Orthodox tradition was taken up into heaven by her Son our God, and her body then likewise was taken into heaven. So both her humanity and her holiness are emphasized in Orthodoxy, which considers her to be the greatest of saints, our intecessor, and the Mother of us all, who held in her womb the Creator of all, and who intercedes for us today as our Mother.

The time of the Dormition Fast includes fasting and ascetic struggle but also the joy of knowing the nature of her passing to be with her Son and our God as our intercessor and Mother in the Church. This is a time when often especially in the Greek tradition the Paraklesis service of intercession is sung to her, and we plan to adopt this practice for our Church and our building project, on Wednesdays during the Fast, at 7 p.m. on Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 on the Bucknell campus, more details to come soon.

We also commemorate today at the start of the Dormition the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-giving Cross of the Lord, This tradition goes back to Byzantine times in Constantinople, when the procession was instituted at this time of the Church calendar year, the start of the fast, to help ask protection for the city and people from epidemics and pandemics. In the hymn of the Cross in ancient times it was sung: “O Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, grant victory to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy Commonwealth.” Likewise just before the Trisagion chant during the Divine Liturgy, when the Deacon asks the Lord to save the pious and hearken unto us, originally that was a prayer to save the emperor. Clearly still today our prayers include our society, our commonwealth so to speak, the oikumene that the Church embraces and seeks to leaven with the faith in Jesus Christ and His Holy Gospel, which our mission seeks to help spread humbly and unworthily yet with the strength God gives us, here in the region of the Confluence of the Susquehanna Valley today. So we cross ourselves bodily often to seek His blessing and ward off demons and to protect ourselves and others in prayer. It is an expression of spiritual community, like today’s feast and the start of the fast.

Not far from us, at Holy Protection Monastery, for which our parish originally was named, there is a fresco on the ceiling of the entry hall of the Church’s tradition about the Wood of the Cross, which is included in our commemorations today. According to one traditional account, the Archangel Michael gave to Seth three seeds from the Tree of Knowledge to be placed beneath the tongue of his father Adam when he was buried. The Archangel told Seth that from these seeds would grow a tree that would bear fruit whereby Adam should be saved and live again. From them sprang a trinity of trees, cedar, cypress, and pine, united in one trunk. One old account said the woods symbolized the palm of victory, the cedar of incorruption, and the olive for royal and priestly unction. From this Moses cut his rod, an old account says, which was transplanted by David to a pool near Jerusalem, where under its branches he composed his Psalms. Later the virtue of the wood was communicated to the waters of the pool of Bethesda and was taken for the main beam of the Cross. The Greek Orthodox monastery of the Holy Cross just west of Jerusalem is on the site where the wood of the Cross grew according to tradition.

In all this the tree of the Cross in a living way symbolizes our connections to God and one another and the Church in Old Testament as well as New Testament times. The Cross, at which the Theotokos mourned and stood vigil for her Son, reminds us in ita form of how our Church and our lives are based vertically in our relation to God Who is also horizontally with us here on Earth, the Cross of the transcendent and the incarnational so to speak. The Orthodox Cross with its diagonal crossbar, the upward side indicating the Wise Thief, reminds us of our freedom to take up the Cross, and through God’s grace and with our ascetic struggle to follow Him. With us at the base of the Cross is His Mother. We honor her during this Fast, both bitter and sweet, the Summer Pascha, bittersweet like the Russian word at wedding feasts, “gorka,” meaning “bitter,” the bright sorrow we especially commemorate in this summer time of Orthodoxy. But then His Mother turns to Him and asks Him to turn the water into wine, and He cannot say no.

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