This Sunday marks the third Sunday of Lent. On this Sunday Orthodox Christians celebrate the adoration of the precious and life giving Cross. At the end of the Divine Liturgy the priest processes around the church carrying a tray with a cross surrounded by basil leaves or flowers while hymns about the Cross are sung.
Hail! life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise, succour of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. Through thee the curse is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to heaven: invincible weapon, adversary of demons, glory of martyrs, true ornament of holy monks, haven of salvation bestowing on the world great mercy.
Come, Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, who fell from the choir on high through the envy of the murderer of man, when of old with bitter pleasure ye tasted from the tree in Paradise. See, the Tree of the Cross, revered by all, draws near! Run with haste and embrace it joyfully, and cry to it with faith: O precious Cross, thou art our succour; partaking of thy fruit, we have gained incorrpution; we are restored once more to Eden, and we have received great mercy.
The Old Testament Fulfilled
Many of the hymns of the Orthodox Church services consist of biblical exegesis. In the Matins service for this Sunday we hear how Old Testament foreshadowed the Cross of Christ and how the Cross fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and types.
The Way Back to the Garden of Eden
We learn in the following kontakion (hymn) how the Cross dealt with the fiery sword that blocked access to Paradise (Genesis 3:24).
The fiery sword no longer guards the gate of Eden, for in a strange and glorious way the wood of the Cross has quenched its flames. The sting of death and the victory of hell are now destroyed, for Thou art come my Saviour, crying unto those in hell: ‘Return again to Paradise.’
Jacob the Patriarch
Jacob as he was dying leaned on the top of his staff and venerated Christ (Genesis 47:31, Hebrews 11:21).
Jacob prefigured Thy Cross in days of old, O Christ, when he venerated the top of Joseph’s holy staff, in which he saw foreshadowed the dread sceptre of Thy Kingdom; and now we venerate Thy Cross in faith for ever.
Moses the Lawgiver
Moses stretching out his arms was a type of the Cross (Exodus 17:8-12).
When now we venerate Thy Cross, which Moses once prefigured with his outstretched arms, we put to flight the invisible Amalek, O Christ our Master, and so we gain salvation.
Elisha the Prophet
What looks like a strange incident of the missing ax head and Elisha throwing a stick of wood into the Jordan River is interpreted as a foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ and our redemption (4  Kings 6:5-7).
Come, Elisha the prophet, and tell us plainly: What was the wood that thou hast cast into the water? ‘It was the Cross of Christ, which draws us up from the depths of corruption: and we venerate it with faith for ever.’
The Trees Shall Rejoice
The Orthodox Church reads the Psalms through Christ-centered glasses, that is, looking for its fulfillment in Christ. Thus instead of reading the verse about the trees of the forest rejoicing literally (Psalm 95 :12), the Church reads it allegorically.
Let all the trees of the forest dance and sing, as they behold their fellow-tree the Cross, today receiving veneration: for Christ, as holy David prophesied, has exalted it on high.
Chanting Versus Preaching?
In a recent FaceBook thread a reader who grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church asked why there was so much chanting in the church and so little preaching from the Bible. Many of the responses were that much of the hymns and prayers were Scriptural in content.
However, I think the reader did raise a valid point. I think she felt the need for didactic Bible preaching in the Orthodox Church. All too often it seems that after the Gospels are read, the priest will turn around, face the altar and move into the remaining part of the Liturgy. Or that the homily that follows is so brief as to barely scratch the surface of the Bible passage. What is sorely needed are sermons/homilies that explain to the congregation the meaning the biblical passage read that morning and an exhortation to live out that Bible passage in the context of the Church.
As a Protestant Evangelical I was encouraged to read and study the Bible. When I became Orthodox I found this biblical training very helpful. Knowing the Bible passages helped me to better understand what was being sung or chanted in the service. The value I find in the hymns and chants of the Church is that hearing theology in song penetrates my mind and heart on a deeper level than pure didactic sermons. So my answer to those who wonder about chants versus sermons is: “We need both. Strong biblical preaching to the mind will complement and revitalize the chants and hymns sung from the heart.” One of Orthodoxy’s greatest bible expositors, John Chrysostom, was also responsible for the Liturgy used on most Sundays in Orthodox churches.
The Lenten Triodion. By Mother Mary and Metropolitan (Archimandrite) Kallistos Ware. South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. [pp. 334-352]