4th Week of Great Lent – Friday
Old Testament references to the Cross.
During the entire fourth week of Great Lent, the precious cross is a constant subject of the services.
This is typical of the way we celebrate our feasts. It is not “one and done”, like so many people, in (lamentably) and out of the church tend to mark Christian holidays: there is always a period after a commemoration where we continue to ruminate on its implications in our services.
For instance, we consider the time of Pascha to not only include the Sunday of Pascha, but the entire week following (“Bright Week”), through Saturday, is considered to be as one day – for us “Pascha” is a week long feast. Since Pascha is the greatest of feasts, we continue to refer to it and use Paschal hymns all the way until the Ascension – a full forty days. In like manner, although not for as long a period, there are “after feast’ periods for all the great feasts the church celebrates.
This week is the period after the celebration of the precious cross on the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent. Our hymnology this week is particularly filled with OT references to the cross, some of which may seem obscure to those who are not well versed in the Orthodox understanding of the scriptures and our services.
Perhaps some would wonder how we know these OT scriptures refer to the cross, Christ, and other New Testament things. After all, some references are not immediately obvious, and there is no place in NT scripture that refers to them. The reason is simply because all that is to be known about God and the scriptures is not in scripture! Even Protestants tacitly recognize this, because they believe interpretations of OT prophesies that are not discussed in the NT, because, after, all,
“… There are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one … even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” (John 21:25)
The Scripture itself tells us that there are many truths that Christ explained to the Apostles after the resurrection:
“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
Not all of them were written down in the Gospels or Epistles. These were all passed down orally, and many made their way into our highly complex, theological, and beautiful services texts.
In the following examples, a hymn for the services of today is quoted, followed by the scriptures it references.
Today the words of the prophet are fulfilled; for see, we worship at the place where Thy feet have stood, O Lord; and, tasting from the tree of salvation, we have been delivered from our sinful passions at the intercessions of the Theotokos, O Thou Who lovest mankind (Sessional Hymn, Friday matins in the 4th week, Tone 6)
Let us enter into his tabernacles: let us worship at the place where his feet stood. Psalm 132:7 (131:7)
Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool; for he is holy. Psalm 99:5 (98:5)
I always think of this prophesy when I prostrate before the cross. There are two kinds of prostrations: penitential, and adoration. Most of the time we are making a prostration in a penitential manner. We are remembering that we are sinners, and the physical act of getting on the ground and then back up is a non verbal prayer, whose basic content can be summed up as “Lord have mercy”.
A prostration before the cross is different. We are “worshipping at His footstool”, with profound gratefulness and awareness of the resurrection. In this context, going down reminds us of death, and getting back up is a physical proclamation of the resurrection. Things will not always be as they are; we will someday get up and stay up, and all this is possible because of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many Protestant commentators totally miss the Messianic context of these Psalms. They are smart people, and very learned, and no doubt many are sincere believers, but they have learned things outside of the eternal wisdom of the church. We in the church have understood these Psalm verses to be a reference to the cross over two millennia!
In the middle of the fast we see exalted in our midst the precious cross, on which Thou wast lifted up by Thine own choice in the middle of the earth, O Lord supreme in goodness and love. Through its veneration the world is sanctified and the hosts of demons put to flight. (Matins Canon, Ode 4, 4th Friday of Great Lent)
But God is our King of old; he has wrought salvation in the midst of the earth. Psalm 74:12 (73:12)
When our Lord was put upon the cross, it was thrust into the “midst of the earth” in order to stand upright. The Psalms are full of obscure references to Christ and the cross like this one. This reference is not “intuitively obvious” to the casual observer, but it is a theme that is repeated many times in our services throughout the year.
We must read the scriptures; this book should not gather any dust in your house! We also must also read the scriptures with understanding. One a few are scholars and have the time, temperament, education and resources to search out the Holy Fathers for scripture commentary. We all have the time to stand in prayer in the holy services, and listen and learn. It’s all there, in our services, for those who will stand still, like Elias, and have ears to hear the wonderful story of our salvation, recounted in many different ways.
Thou was crucified, O Son of God, on the pine, the cedar and the cypress; Sanctify us all, and count us worthy to look upon Thy life-giving passion (Matins canon, Ode 4, 4th Friday of Great Lent)
And the glory of Lebanon shall come to thee, with the cypress, and pine, and cedar together, to glorify my holy place. Isaiah 60:13
Here is one of the most obscure references to the cross in all of scripture, and here also is another “name” we have for our Lord Jesus Christ: “the glory of Lebanon”.
The Hebrew version of the scriptures makes this prophesy even more exact, by adding the words “I will make the place of my feet glorious”. I am not sure why there is this textual difference between the Septuagint (which is quoted above and used in our services) and the Masoretic text (the Hebrew text translated into “typical” English bibles, such as the King James, Revised Standard, etc). This does not really matter; I have the holy services to guide me and teach me about the holy scriptures. Maybe after I get a doctorate in Hebrew and Greek I will look into this textual question!
Priest Seraphim Holland 2009. St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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