For those who regularly attend the full schedule of services in the Orthodox Church during the Great Fast, this past week marks a "shift" in the spirit and content of the services.
Prior to the Sunday of the Cross, the prayers of the Divine Services were markedly focused on repentance. In the first week we celebrated the Canon of St. Andrew, which is the hallmark of Orthodox services focused on repentance. But beyond St. Andrew, the content of Presanctified Liturgies also shared in the focus:
Come, O faithful, let us perform the works of God in the light. Let us behave with decency as befits the day. Let us not make unjust accusations against our neighbors, or place a cause of stumbling in their path. Let us lay aside all fleshly pleasures and increase the spiritual gifts of our souls. Let us give food to those in need, drawing near to Christ and crying in repentance: 'O our God, have mercy on us!' (Idiomelon, First Friday)
But now that focus has shifted. It is not so much that the time for repentance has passed. Rather, it is a subtle message that the spirit of repentance should now be so ingrained within us that we are able to accept another additional focus. What is that focus? It is the Cross!
Beginning with the Sunday of the Cross, the Holy Church begins to prepare us for that which lay ahead. For those who are not new to Holy Orthodoxy, we've lived through Holy Weeks before. We know their rigors. We anticipate their great sorrow. We expect to find ourselves drying our eyes inside the churches. We remember the priest's voice cracking as he reads the Gospels of the Crucifixion, and we agonize with him, considering the gift that our Savior is even at that very moment working for us and in us.
The "preparation" that the Church offers to us is not unlike that which our Lord offered to His own Apostles. We know how often He told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified." (Mat 20:18-19) He explained it all to them - fully, lovingly. And they ignored the message. When it happened, they were unprepared for what transpired. They were filled with fear.
Let us heed the Church's message to prepare ourselves. If we have not yet completed our walk to repentance, let us make a good ending to that process and submit ourselves to the sacrament. But most of all, let us commit to being witnesses at as much of our Lord's walk to Bethany, to Jerusalem, to Gethsemane, to the Sanhedrin, to Golgotha, and to the Tomb as we find ourselves physically possible to be present. If you can spend time guarding the Tomb, this is one of the most spiritually moving tasks in which a person can engage, and we recommend it to all!
May our Lord bless us to be prepared for being near to Him in this coming Passion Week. If we hope to be near to Him throughout all eternity, what better place to make a start?