Mid lent is the 25th day of the Holy Lent and the Orthodox Tradition considers this day as a feast of extreme importance.
What are the significances of Mid Lent?
What shall we understand from the readings of Mid Lent?
Does this have a bearing to the festival of Easter?
Does this have bearings to following festivals in the Church Calendar?
It seems like benevolent to answer these questions.
In the book of Numbers, we read in 21: 4-9 that Israelites complained against the Lord about their plight of tedious walking towards Canaan. It was decided that they shall walk around the Land of Edom and they set out from Mount Hor by the route of Red Sea. The route was long and people lost their patience, perseverance and concentration to reach the Promised Land. As usual they started complaining against the Lord and Moses. They spoke in the line like ‘why were they brought to the desert from Egypt that they die there’. They were deprived of bread and water in the desert and the meager food that they were eating was disgusting to them. Result of this rebellion was that the Lord sending fiery serpents into their midst. The serpents bit many Israelites and several of them died. When quite a few have died, the remaining turned back to Moses again and asked him to pray to the Lord for the people. Moses was moved by the request of the people and he opted to pray for them. Answering Moses’ prayer, the Lord commanded him to make a serpent of bronze and to hang it down from the flag pole. Any one looks at the bronze serpent after having bitten by the fiery serpents was to live and not to die. This is the primary text that the Church has decided to highlight for the Mid Lent.
In the Gospel reading for the Mid Lent, we read from Jn 3: 14-15 that like Moses raised the serpent in the desert, the Son was to be raised. This was for any one, who believes in Him shall live. Clearly the allusion here is to the narrated text above. Now, it would be interesting to look deep into the ideas buried here.
First of all the incidence from the book of Numbers was when the people of Israel walked halfway through their sojourn towards the Promised Land. The Church also has walked halfway to the festival of Salvation, namely Easter, the conquering of death by the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. When we reach half of the Holy Lent, being human, many develop tendencies to complain against the food disciplines or severe and rigorous prayer sessions. Moreover, we can notice that people have an increased tendency to criticize and complain against other people during the Holy Lent. It is in this very context that we need to look into the incidence narrated above from the Old Testament. This text is a check for all of us to seriously scrutinize us and our spiritual discipline that we specially adopt during the Holy Lent.
Secondly, the serpent that Moses raised was made of bronze, an alloy made of fusing copper and zinc. Now, copper and zinc have some significance to be noted. Copper is a shining soft metal and in its purity it is very delicate and flexible too, whereas zinc has a dull color and is hard and inflexible but also is easily breakable. These are contrasting characteristics. We can compare these with divine and human traits. God is shining in His purity, and He is very delicate and flexible, eagerly waiting for humans to turn back from their evil ways. Humans in their sinful state are very much rigid, inflexible and therefore, breakable into decay. These contrasting characteristics of metals were fused to make an alloy called bronze and similarly Jesus is made of, namely a total union between divine and human. It is to this God-human that we all will have to look for salvation. King and Prophet David proclaims that the ones, who looked at Him were enlightened and there faces were not ashamed either (cf. Ps 34:5).
On the other hand, the evil that came into the midst of children of Israel was death infused through fiery serpents. In the Garden of Eden, death was infused by a serpent. In order to kill death that was caused by the serpent, God the Son took upon Himself the image of sinful humans. Now when God become human, He looked like a human through and through. Anyone with a snake bite, who looked upon this God become human, lived. St. John the Theologian in his fourth Gospel says that the Son of Man was elevated in the desert for people to believe in Him. Any one who looked upon the bronze serpent has done that with faith that he shall live. Here this act of looking is understood as believing in Jesus Christ though in the writings of St. John. It is for looking unto the Son of Man and believing in Him that the cross is elevated in the midst of the Church during the Mid Lent!
The cross that the Church elevates in her midst at Mid Lent is the cross that will be used for burial of the Lord on Good Friday, for the resurrection on Easter and for His ascension after 40 days from Easter. In short, the cross that is elevated in the midst of the Church and in the midst of the Holy Lent will remain actively in the Church for 65 days. This cross is the sacramental and sacrificial presence of Jesus Christ, the God Incarnate, in the midst of the Holy Lent.
It needs to be answered one more question here. Is venerating this cross idol worship? The answer from an Orthodox perspective is an outright no. In Ten Commandments, it is written that one shall not make any image of anything, living or non living, to make an idol. One shall not worship any idols (cf. Ex 20 and Deut 5). Had the Church had been using the image of a serpent, this tradition could have been depicted as idol worship. The Orthodox Church is not using any idols of any humans or serpents or any other living or non living thing. It is using the empty cross alone. What the cross is depicting is that which signifies the meaning of this great tradition. This cross is depicting none but the God become human. Let us emphasize the concept, the cross portraying the incarnate God. No one can say that this cross is the idol of Jesus Christ. It was the tool of abomination in the past and now that has become the symbol of victory for the ones, who believe in Him (cf. I Cor 1:18). St. Paul was keen to draw attention to the meaning of cross and Gal 6:14 is the highlight of all that he wants to say, namely, his praise is solely in the Holy Cross. This praise, this adoration and this veneration is that the Church is offering to the Holy Cross during these 65 days. This exactly is the very reason for all of us to kiss this cross first, when we come into the Church until the Holy Week. All clergy and servants at the Holy Altar shall kiss this cross until the feast of ascension, for this cross is to be kept in the Holy Altar room after Easter. The Church incenses this cross from Mid Lent until the feast of ascension and the idea there behind is also nothing but the same said above.
Finally there is another tradition associated with the feast of Mid Lent. The name of King Abgar the Black is alluded as well during the readings and songs for the Mid Lent. The tradition says that Abgar the King had an ailment and he wanted Jesus to heal him. Also it was the time that he heard that the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus. The offer from Abgar was that Jesus leaves Jerusalem and lives safely in Edessa or Uraha, which is called Sanli Urfa in present day Eastern Turkey. Interestingly this has happened 25 days before the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the tradition says. Jesus declined the offer from Abgar to run away from Jerusalem and live in Edessa for He had to accomplish something important, but sent back a towel with His face imprinted upon it miraculously through the Royal Emissary. Later after three years from resurrection St. Thaddeus, other wise called St. Addai, went to Edessa to preach the Gospel and King Abgar became a Christian. Since the communication between Jesus and Abgar the Black happened 25 days before the feast of Resurrection, this tradition also took a place in the Mid Lent calendar. What ever be the veracity of this incidence, one shall note that even a gentile King like the Abgar looked at Jesus with faith to get healed from his ailments or weaknesses and he also got healed. This is the lesson that we too have to take from this legend. Ergo, let all of us get healed from the one who is elevated in the midst of the Church, namely, Jesus Christ!