He cast out Adam, and made him dwell opposite the garden of pleasure. He then stationed the cherubim and the fiery sword which turns every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gn 3:24). It was from the narrative of this excerpt that we began Great Lent three weeks ago; remembering the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Today, we find ourselves in the midst of the Great Fast with the Veneration of the Holy Cross. Also, in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of learning the knowledge of good and evil (ibid 2:9). From every tree Adam and Eve were permitted to partake from except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
It was a simple and straightforward commandment from God. Adam and Eve had to fast from just one tree, yet, as we know this was not so easy. In the middle of the Garden were two trees, two choices: life or death. The Tree of Life provided eternity in God’s Kingdom, however, the other Tree led to sin and death. The latter was not placed in the middle of the Garden by accident. It was placed there in the midst by God so that Adam and Eve could realize the central focus and the clear choice: life with God in His Kingdom or death in Hades. Once Adam and Eve were deceived by Satan and partook of the fruit from the forbidden Tree, they were cast out from Paradise. The
Cherub guarded the entrance into Paradise with a fiery sword. It remained closed for humanity to enter. A remembrance of this hindrance was the annual Feast of Yom Kippur (Lev 23:26-44) which Paul spoke about in his Epistle to the Hebrews: Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing (9:6-8).
Yet, the veil of the entrance of the Temple was opened once and for all on the Cross: then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two (Lk 23:45). This is the fulfillment of Christ’s words: I am the door, if anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture (Jn 10:9). It is Christ who removes the veil, revealing Himself to us. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech— unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3:12-18).
This morning we heard in matins the Festal Kontakion: The fiery sword is not guarding the entrance to Eden anymore. For it was extinguished in paradoxical manner by the tree of the Cross. The sting of death and the victory of Hades have been stricken. And You, my Savior, came and cried out to those in Hades: Enter again into Paradise. It is for this reason that the Veneration of the Holy and Precious, Life-Giving Cross in placed in the middle and 3rd Sunday of Great Lent. The Veneration of the Cross is intentionally placed in the middle of Great Lent to strengthen us and to keep us on our path to salvation. There is an old expression in Greek: την μισή την νηστεία την φάγαμε (we have eaten half the fast). The Holy Cross, its vision and victory, is our hope and strength; it is our destination. The Cherub with his fiery sword is no longer necessary, for the entrance into Paradise has been opened by the Cross. Christ is both the Door and the One who opened the Door to Paradise by the Cross. It is for the same reason that the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is no longer necessary and has been superseded by the Crucifixion. There is no need for the high priest to offer an animal sacrifice for atonement which is temporary and needs to be repeated. Rather, the High Priest, Jesus Christ, is the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29). His sacrifice need not be repeated and is eternal.
Just as Adam and Eve had a choice of two trees in the midst of Eden, likewise, we have a choice in the midst of Lent. We have the choice to either abandon this journey out of fatigue and weakness or to choose the Cross, thus, the Tree of Life. It will guide us through the rest of our Lenten journey and beyond, into His Heavenly Kingdom. After three weeks of strict fasting and daily liturgical services, we are fatigued and vulnerable to the pleasures of the flesh. Nevertheless, the Cross will give us the strength and spiritual energy needed to complete our Lenten journey.
Of old the tree in the garden stripped us naked, and by its taste did the enemy bring in death. Now the tree of the Cross, which for all mankind is bearing the garment of life, was planted upon the earth, and therefore is all the world filled with every joy. As we see it revered today, let us, O peoples, cry aloud together unto God in faith: Full of glory is Your house, O Lord (Festal Kathisma of Matins).
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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