Three times it has snowed on the backs of the robins; Julio counted. Still, I’m not sure we’re done with winter; the week ahead looks bleak. But today, after a week of bizarre blizzards and derechos, has been another wonderful respite from the cold, another taste of the coming spring.
It is the Third Sunday of Lent: The Adoration of the Holy Cross. There are only a few occasions each year when we replace the central icons of the church with the Cross, always adorned with flowers and sweet-scented greenery, and this one comes appropriately at the midpoint of Lent, a redirection in the midst of our redirection.
St. Romanos the Melodist, it turns out, wrote an entire hymn about the Cross, On the Victory of the Cross. If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, you’re familiar with listening in on the conversations of demons, and St. Romanos should be right up your alley. It’s a song – a hymn – a prayer, remember, so a bit more poetical than Screwtape and Wormwood. It’s also only a few pages long, wasting no time with pleasantries or story arc.
St. Romanos dives right into the crucifixion, thanking God beautifully for snatching us back from death through the Cross. Immediately we hear death (Hades), a bit under the weather, moaning and barking at his armies of minions, for the Cross has pierced his heart. He is about to be ill, afraid he may spew forth all his victims through the ages, throwing them back out into Paradise, into life eternal.
“My ministers and powers
Who has fixed a nail in my heart?
A wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am being torn apart.
My insides are in pain, my belly in agony.
My senses make my spirit tremble,
And I am compelled to disgorge
Adam and Adam’s race, given me by a tree,
A tree is bringing them back
Again to Paradise.”
I have to say, I’ve never thought about the crucifixion from death’s perspective. There is a smidge of compassion in me, but it’s soon overtaken by whoops and hollers. Take that, y’old grinch.
What about Satan? In our hymn, his name is Beliar, the serpent:
“When he heard this, the cunning serpent,
Ran crawling and cried, ‘Hades, what is it?
Why do you groan for no reason? Why produce these wailings?
This tree, at which you tremble,
I carpentered up there for Mary’s child.
I intimated it to the Jews for our advantage,
For it is a cross, to which I have nailed Christ
Wishing by a tree to do away with the second Adam.
So do not upset yourself. It will not plunder you.
Keep hold of those you have. Of those whom we rule
Not one escapes
Again to Paradise.”
Rendered in the hands of St. Romanos, the tale is almost comical. “Don’t worry, Hades; I’ve got this. You won’t believe what a great plan I’ve set in motion. Just wait and see. We’re good.” Can you see him pacing and sniveling, conceited to the core? “Quit yer whining.”
Hades isn’t buying it. The churning of his gut tells him something has gone terribly wrong with Beliar’s great plan:
“Away with you, come to your senses, Beliar, cries Hades
‘Run, open your eyes, and see
The root of the tree inside my soul.
It has gone down to my depths,
To draw up Adam like iron…”
It goes on like this for quite some time, full of arguing, denial, and just the sort of backpedaling and excuses we can expect from the serpent. We’re only into the third of eighteen verses. I’d give you the Krista’s Notes version, but really, you should just read it for yourself. If you’re not sure how things turn out, you should definitely read it yourself:
On the Victory of the Cross
(Sadly, the pdf has disappeared. You’ll have to do some hunting!)
Remember, it’s poetical. You won’t be just slamming through it like a novel or a cereal box. Take some time.
So here we are, smack dab in the middle of Great and Holy Lent, on this gorgeous bright and shining day, celebrating the Victory of the Cross, mocking death who is about to be overthrown, and re-upping our Lenten efforts to prepare our hearts for that Holy Pascha when the deed is done.
Come blizzards, derechos, thunderstorms, or tornadoes, spring will come. So, too, Pascha is at the door, and death trembles.
A blessed Lenten struggle,
KJ and Julio (who sings a great rendition of the full hymn – take a listen tomorrow morning)
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