The Holy Week: A Liturgical Explanation
A LITURGICAL EXPLANATION OF HOLY WEEK
The Very Rev. Alexander Schmemann
All those familiar with Orthodox worship know the peculiar, almost paradoxical character of Lazarus Saturday services. It is a Sunday, i.e., a Resurrection, service on a Saturday, a day usually devoted to the liturgical commemoration of the dead. And the joy which permeates these services stresses one central theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for Death in its universal power, for that unescapable darkness and destruction that swallows all life and poisons with its shadow the whole world. But now — with Lazarus’ resurrection — “death begins to tremble.” For there the decisive duel between Life and Death begins and it gives us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. In the early church Lazarus Saturday was called “announcement of Pascha”, it announces and anticipates, indeed, the wonderful light and peace of the next Saturday – the Great and Holy Saturday, the day of the Lifegiving Tomb.
How did this happen? These are the questions implied in John’s slow and detailed narrative of Jesus’ coming to the grave of His friend. And once there, “Jesus wept.”(John 11:35) Why does He weep if He knows that in a moment He will call Lazarus back to life? Byzantine hymnographers fail to grasp the true meaning of these tears.
They ascribe them to His human nature, whereas the power of resurrection belongs to God in Him. But the Orthodox Church teaches that all actions of Christ are “theandric,”i.e., both Divine and human, are actions of the one and same God-Man. But then His very tears are Divine. Jesus weeps because He contemplates the triumph of death and
destruction in the world created by God.
And we who follow Jesus as He approaches the grave, enter with Him into that hour of His, which He announced so often as the climax and the fulfillment of his whole work.The Cross, its necessity and universal meaning are announced in the shortest verse of the Gospel: “and Jesus wept”… We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e.,loved His friend Lazarus, that Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The power of Resurrection is not a divine“power in itself,” but power of love, or rather love as power. God is Love and Love is life, Love creates Life…It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life.
This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus. In them love is at work again –recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!…” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the beginning of both: the Cross, as the Supreme sacrifice of love, the Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.
The Saturday of Lazarus from the liturgical point of view is the pre-feast of Palm Sunday – the Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem. Both feasts have a common theme;triumph and victory. Saturday reveals the Enemy, which is Death. Palm Sunday announces the meaning of victory as the triumph of the Kingdom of God, as the acceptance by the world of its only King, Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus the solemn entrance in the Holy City was the only visible triumph. Up to that day, He consistently rejected all attempts to glorify Him. But six days before the Passover, He not only accepted to be glorified, He Himself provoked and arranged this glorification by doing what the prophet Zacharias announced: “behold, Thy King cometh unto thee… lowly and riding upon an ass.. “(Zac. 9:9). He made it clear the He wanted to be acclaimed and acknowledged as the Messiah, the King and the Redeemer of Israel. The Gospel narratives stress all these Messianic features; the Palms, the cry from the crowd of “Hosannah”, the acclamation of Jesus as the Son of David and the King of Israel. The history of Israel is now coming to its end, such is the meaning of this event, for the purpose of that history was to announce and to prepare the Kingdom of God, the advent of the Messiah. And now it is fulfilled. For the King enters His Holy City and in Him all prophecies, all expectations find their fulfillment. He inaugurates His Kingdom. The Liturgy of Palm Sunday commemorates this event. With palm branches in our hands, we identify ourselves with the people of Jerusalem, together with them we greet the lowly King, singing Hosannah to Him. But what is the meaning of this today for us?
First, it is our confession of Christ as our King and Lord. We forget so often that the Kingdom of God has already been inaugurated and that on the day of our Baptism we were made citizens of it and promised to put our loyalty to it above all other loyalties.
We must remember that for a few hours Christ was indeed King on earth in this world of ours, for a few hours only and in one city. But as in Lazarus we have recognized the image of each man, in this one city we acknowledge the mystical centre of the world and indeed of the whole of creation. For such is the biblical meaning of Jerusalem, the focal point of the whole history of salvation and redemption, the holy city of God’s advent.
Therefore, the Kingdom inaugurated in Jerusalem is a universal Kingdom, embracing in its perspective all men and the totality of creation. For a few hours – yet these were the decisive time, the ultimate hour of Jesus, the hour of fulfillment by God, of all His promises, of all His decisions. It came at the end of the entire process of preparation revealed in the Bible: it was the end of all that God did for men. And thus this short hour of Christ’s earthly triumph acquires an eternal meaning. It introduces the reality of the Kingdom into our time, into all hours, makes this Kingdom the meaning of time and its ultimate goal. The Kingdom was revealed in this world – from that hour – its presence judges and transforms human history. And at the most solemn moment of our liturgical celebration, when we receive from the Priest a palm branch, we renew our oath to our King and confess His Kingdom as the ultimate meaning and content of our life. We confess that everything in our life and in the world belongs to Christ, nothing can be taken away from its sole real Owner, for there is no area of life in which He is not to rule, to save and to redeem. We proclaim the universal and total responsibility of the Church for human history and uphold her universal mission.
And finally these branches, this celebration, proclaim our faith in the final victory of Christ. His Kingdom is yet hidden and the world ignores it. It lives as if the decisive event had not taken place, as if God had not died on the Cross and Man in Him was not risen from the dead. But we, Orthodox Christians, believe in the coming of the Kingdom in which God will be all in all and Christ the only King.
In our liturgical celebrations we remember events of the past. But the whole meaning and power of Liturgy is that it transforms remembrance into reality. On Palm Sunday this reality is our own involvement in, our responsibility to, the Kingdom of God.
And they hated and killed Him precisely because He was troubling their normal life. It was indeed a perfectly “normal” world which preferred darkness and death to light and life… By the death of Jesus “normal” world, “normal” life were irrevocably condemned.Or rather they revealed their true and abnormal nature, their inability to receive the Light, the terrible power of evil in them. “Now is the judgement of this world” (John 12:31). The Pascha of Jesus signified its end to “this world” and it has been at its end since then. This end can last for hundreds of centuries, this does not alter the nature of time in which we live as the “last time.” “The form of this world is passing away…” (I Corinthians 7:31)
And thus Pascha is not an annual commemoration — solemn and beautiful — of a past event. It is this Event itself shown, given to us, as always efficient, always revealing our world, our time, our life as being at their End, and announcing the Beginning of the new life… And the function of the three first days of the Holy Week is precisely to challenge us with this ultimate meaning of Pascha and to prepare us to the understanding and acceptance of it.
down with sleep, lest you be given up and shut out from the Kingdom. But, rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”
I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the
garment of my soul, O Giver of Light and save me.”
2. The same theme develops further in the Gospel readings of these days. First of all, the entire text of the four Gospels (up to John 13:31) is read at the Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th). This recapitulation shows that the Cross is the climax of the whole life and ministry of Jesus, the Key to their proper understanding. Everything in the Gospel leads to this ultimate hour of Jesus and everything is to be understood in its light. Then, each service has its special Gospel lesson:
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24:3-35; the great eschatological discourse of Jesus. The signs and announcement of the End. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
At Orthros: Matthew 22:15-23:39; condemnation of Pharisees, i.e., of the blind and hypocritical religion, of those who think they are the leaders of man and the light of the world, but who in fact “shut the Kingdom of heaven against men.”
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24:36-26:2; the End again and the parables of the End: the ten wise virgins who had enough oil in their lamps and the ten foolish ones who were not admitted to the bridal banquet; the parable of the ten talents “… Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And, finally, the Last Judgement.
At Orthros: John 12:17-50; the rejection of Christ, the growing conflict, the ultimate warning: “Now is the judgement of this world… He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings, has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day.”
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26:6-16; the woman who poured the precious ointment on Jesus, the image of love and repentance which alone unite us with Christ.
3. These Gospel lessons are explained and elaborated in the hymnology of these days: the sticheras and the triodia (short canons of three odes each sung at Orthros).One warning, one exhortation runs through all of them: the end and the judgement are approaching, let us prepare for them:
“Behold, O my soul, the Master has confided to Thee a talent;receive the favor with fear; lend to Him who gave; distribute to the poor, and acquire for thyself thy Lord as thy Friend; that,when He shall come in glory, thou mayest stand on His right
hand and hear His blessed voice: Enter, my servant, into the joy of thy Lord. O my Savior, deem me, the wanderer, worthy of this, through Thy great mercy.” (Tuesday Orthros)
5. The liturgical structure of these three days is still of the Lenten type. It includes, therefore, the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian with prostrations, the augmented reading of the Psalter, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and the Lenten Liturgical chant. We are still in the time of repentance for repentance alone makes us partakers of the Pascha
of our Lord, opens to us the doors of the Paschal banquet. And, then, on Great and Holy Wednesday, as the last Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is about to be completed,after the Holy Gifts have been removed from the Altar, the Priest reads for the last time the prayer of St. Ephraim. At this moment the preparation comes to an end. The Lord summons us now to His Last Supper.
Two events shape the Liturgy of the Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s redeeming love for man. The betrayal by Judas reveals that sin, death and selfdestruction are also due to love, but love directed at that which does not deserve love.
The mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which the eternal destiny of each one of us depends. “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come… having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end… “(John 13:1) To understand the meaning of the Last Supper, we must see it as the very end of the great movement of Divine Love which began with the creation of the world and is now to be consummated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
God is love. (1 John 4:8) And the first gift of Love was life. The meaning, the content of life, was communion. To be alive man was to eat and to drink, to partake of the world. The world was thus Divine love made food, made Body of man. And being alive, i.e., partaking of the world, man was to be in communion with God, to have God as the meaning, the content and the end of his life. Communion With the God-given world was indeed communion with God. Man received his food from God and making it his body and his life, he offered the whole world to God, transformed it into life in God and with God. The love of God gave life to man, the love of man for God transformed this life into communion with God. This was the paradise. Life in it was, indeed, Eucharistic. Through man and his love for God the whole creation was to be sanctified and transformed into one all-embracing sacrament of Divine Presence and man was the priest of this sacrament.
But in sin man lost this Eucharistic life. He lost it because he ceased to see the world as means of Communion with God and his life as eucharist, as adoration and thanksgiving. He loved himself and the world for their own sake; he made himself the content and the end of his life. He thought that his hunger and thirst, i.e., his dependence of his life on the world, can be satisfied by the world as such, by food as such. But world and food, once they are deprived of their initial sacramental meaning –as means of Communion with God, once they are not received for God’s sake, and filled with hunger and thirst for God, once, in other words, God is no longer, their real “content,” can give no life, satisfy no hunger, for they have no life in themselves. Thus by putting his love in them, man deviated his love from the only object of all love, of all hunger, of all desires. And he died. For death is the inescapable “decomposition: of life cut from its only source and content. Man thought he would find life in the world and in food, but he found death. His life became communion with death, for instead of transforming the world by faith, love and adoration into communion with God, he submitted himself entirely to the world, ceased to be its priest and became its slave.
At Orthros the Troparion sets the theme of the day: the oppositon between the love of Christ and the “insatiable desire” of Judas.
Its last “irmos,” (Ninth Ode) invites us to share in the hospitality of the Lord’s banquet: “Come, O ye faithful Let us enjoy the hospitality of the Lord and the banquet of immortality In the upper chamber with minds uplifted….”
At Vespers, the stichira on “Lord, I cry” stress the spiritual anticlimax of Holy Thursday, the betrayal of Judas:
“Judas the servant and deceiver, the disciple and traitor, the friend and devil, was proved by his deeds, for, as he followed the Master, within himself he planned His betrayal….”
After the Entrance, three lessons from the Old Testament:
1) Exodus 19: 10-19. God’s descent from Mount Sinai to His people as the image of God’s coming in the Eucharist.
2) Job 38:1-23, 42:1-5, God’s conversation with Job and Job’s answer: “who will utter to me what I understand not? Things too great and wonderful for me, which I knew not…” – and these “great and wonderful things” are fulfilled in the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood.
3) Isaiah 50:4-11. The beginning of the prophecies on the suffering servant of God,The Epistle reading is from I Corinthians 11:23-32: St Paul’s account of the Last Supper and the meaning of communion.
The Gospel reading (the longest of the year is taken from all four Gospels and is the full story of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas and Christ’s arrest in the garden.
The Cherubic hymn and the hymn of Communion are replaced by the words of the prayer before Communion:
“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant, for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”
GREAT AND HOLY FRIDAY
From the light of Holy Thursday we enter into the darkness of Friday, the day of Christ’s Passion, Death and Burial. In the early Church this day was called “Pascha of the Cross,” for it is indeed the beginning of that Passover or Passage whose whole meaning will be gradually revealed to us, first, in the wonderful quiet of the Great and Blessed Sabbath, and, then, in the joy of the Resurrection day.
But, first, the Darkness. If only we could realize that on Good Friday darkness is not merely symbolical and commemorative. So often we watch the beautiful and solemn sadness of these services in the spirit of self-righteousness and self-justification. Two thousand years ago bad men killed Christ, but today we — the good Christian people — erect sumptuous Tombs in our Churches — is this not the sign of our goodness? Yet,Good Friday deals not with past alone. It is the day of Sin, the day of Evil, the day on which the Church invites us to realize their awful reality and power in “this world.” For Sin and Evil have not disappeared, but, on the contrary, still constitute the basic law of the world and of our life. And we who call ourselves Christians, do we not so often make ours that logic of evil which led the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, the Roman soldiers and the whole crowd to hate, torture and kill Christ? On what side, with whom would we have been, had we lived in Jerusalem under Pilate? This is the question addressed to us in every word of Holy Friday services. It is, indeed, the day of this world,its real and not symbolical, condemnation and the real and not ritual, judgment on our life… It is the revelation of the true nature of the world which preferred then, and still prefers, darkness to light, evil to good, death to life. Having condemned Christ to death,”this world” has condemned itself to death and inasmuch as we accept its spirit, its sin, its betrayal of God — we are also condemned… Such is the first and dreadfully realistic meaning of Good Friday — a condemnation to death…
But this day of Evil, of its ultimate manifestation and triumph, is also the day of Redemption. The death of Christ is revealed to us as the saving death for us and for our salvation.
It is a saving Death because it is the full, perfect and supreme Sacrifice. Christ gives His Death to His Father and He gives His Death to us. To His Father because, as we shall see, there is no other way to destroy death, to save men from it and it is the will of the Father that men be saved from death. To us because in very truth Christ dies instead of us. Death is the natural fruit of sin, an immanent punishment. Man chose to be alienated from God, but having no life in himself and by himself, he dies. Yet there is no sin and, therefore, no death in Christ. He accepts to die only by love for us. He wants to assume and to share our human condition to the end. He accepts the punishment of our nature, as He assumed the whole burden of human predicament. He dies because He has truly identified Himself with us, has indeed taken upon Himself the tragedy of man’s life. His death is the ultimate revelation of His compassion and love. And because His dying is love, compassion and co-suffering, in His death the very nature of death is changed. From punishment it becomes the radiant act of love and forgiveness, the end of alienation and solitude. Condemnation is transformed into forgiveness…
And, finally, His death is a saving death because it destroys the very source of death: evil. By accepting it in love, by giving Himself to His murderers and permitting their apparent victory, Christ reveals that, in reality, this victory is the total and decisive defeat of Evil. To be victorious Evil must annihilate the Good, must prove itself to be the ultimate truth about life, discredit the Good and, in one word, show its own superiority. But throughout the whole Passion it is Christ and He alone who triumphs.
The Evil can do nothing against Him, for it cannot make Christ accept Evil as truth. Hypocrisy is revealed as Hypocrisy, Murder as Murder, Fear as Fear, and as Christ silently moves towards the Cross and the End, as the human tragedy reaches its climax, His triumph, His victory over the Evil, His glorification become more and more obvious. And at each step this victory is acknowledged, confessed, proclaimed — by the wife of Pilate, by Joseph, by the crucified thief, by the centurion. And as He dies on the Cross having accepted the ultimate horror of death: absolute solitude (My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!?), nothing remains but to confess that “truly this was the Son of God!…” And, thus, it is this Death, this Love, this obedience, this fullness of Life that destroy what made Death the universal destiny. “And the graves were opened…”
(Matthew 27:52) Already the rays of resurrection appear. Such is the double mystery of Holy Friday, and its services reveal it and make us participate in it. On the one hand, there is the constant emphasis on the Passion of Christ as the sin of all sins, the crime of all crimes. Throughout Orthros during which the twelve Passion readings make us follow step by step the sufferings of Christ, at the Hours (which replace the Divine Liturgy: for the interdiction to celebrate Eucharist on this day means that the sacrament of Christ’s Presence does not belong to “this world” of sin and darkness, but is the sacrament of the “world to come”) and finally, at Vespers, the service of Christ’s burial the hymns and readings are full of solemn accusations of those,who willingly and freely decided to kill Christ, justifying this murder by their religion, their political loyalty, their practical considerations and their professional obedience.
But, on the other hand, the sacrifice of love which prepares the final victory is also present from the very beginning. From the first Gospel reading (John 13:31) which begins with the solemn announcement of Christ: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and in Him God is glorified” to the stichera at the end of Vespers — there is the increase of light, the slow growth of hope and certitude that “death will trample down death…” “Hell shuddered when it beheld Thee, the Redeemer of all Who was laid in a tomb. Its bonds were broken; its gates were smashed! The tombs were opened; the dead arose. Then Adam cried in joy and thanksgiving: Glory to Thy condescension, O Lover of man!”
And when, at the end of Vespers, we place in the center of the Church the image of Christ in the tomb, when this long day comes to its end, we know that we are at the end of the long history of salvation and redemption. The Seventh Day, the day of rest, the blessed Sabbath comes and with it — the revelation of the Life-giving Tomb.
GREAT AND HOLY SATURDAY
The “Great and Holy Sabbath” is the day which connects Good Friday, the commemoration of the Cross with the Day of His Resurrection. To many, the real nature and the meaning of this “connection,” the very necessity of this “middle day” remains obscure. For a good majority of Church-goers, the “important” days of the Holy Week are Friday and Sunday, the Cross and the Resurrection. These two days, however, remain somehow “disconnected.” There is a day of sorrow, and then, there is the day of joy. In this sequence, sorrow is simply replaced by joy… But according to the teaching of the Church, expressed in her liturgical tradition, the nature of this sequence is not that of a simple replacement. The Church proclaims that Christ has “trampled death by death.”
It means that even before the Resurrection, an event takes place, in which the sorrow is not simply replaced by joy, but is itself transformed into joy. Great Saturday is precisely this day of transformation, the day when victory grows from inside the defeat, when before the Resurrection, we are given to contemplate the death of death itself… And all this is expressed, and even more, all this really takes place every year in this marvelous morning service, in this liturgical commemoration which becomes for us a saving and transforming presence.
His death, His defeat. Psalm 118 is sung and to each verse we add a special “praise” which expresses the horror of men and of the whole creation before the death of Jesus:
“O all ye mountains and hills, and all ye gatherings of men,mourn, weep and lament with me, the Mother of your God…”
And yet, from the very beginning, alongside with this initial theme of sorrow and lamentation, a new one makes its appearance and will become more and more apparent.
We find it, first of all, in Psalm 118 — “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” In our liturgical practice today this psalm is used only at the funeral services, hence, its “funeral” connotation for the average believer. But in early liturgical tradition this Psalm was one of the essential parts of the Sunday vigil, the weekly commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection. Its content is not “funeral” at all. This psalm is the purest and the fullest expression of love for the law of God, i.e., for the Divine design of man and of his life. The real life, the one which man lost through sin,consists in keeping, in fulfilling the Divine law, that life with God, in God and for God,for which man was created.
“In the way of thy testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.” (Verse 14)
“I will delight in thy statutes; I will not forget thy word.” (Verse16)
And since Christ is the image of a perfect fulfillment of this law, since His whole life had no other “content” but the fulfillment of His Father’s will, the Church interprets this psalm as the words of Christ Himself, spoken to His Father from the grave.
“Consider how I love thy precepts! Quicken me, O Lord,according to thy loving kindness.” (Verse 159)
The death of Christ is the ultimate proof of His love for the will of God, of His obedience to His Father. It is an act of pure obedience, of full trust in the Father’s will;and for the Church it is precisely this obedience to the end, this perfect humility of the Son that constitutes the foundation, the beginning of His victory. The Father desires this death, the Son accepts it, revealing an unconditional faith in the perfection of the Father’s will, in the necessity of this sacrifice of the Son by the Father. Psalm 118 is the psalm of that obedience, and therefore the announcement that in obedience the triumph has begun…
from Adam to Moses” (Romans 5:14), the entire universe has become a cosmic cemetery, was condemned to destruction and despair. And this is why death is “the last enemy” (I Corinthians 15:20) and its destruction constitutes the ultimate goal of the Incarnation. This encounter with death is the “hour” of Christ of which He said “for this purpose, I have come to this hour” (John 12:27)…
Now this hour has come and the Son of God enters into Death. The Fathers usually describe this moment as a duel between Christ and the Death, Christ and Satan.
For this death was to be either the last triumph of Satan, or his decisive defeat. The duel develops in several stages. At first, the forces of evil seem to triumph. The Righteous One is crucified, abandoned by all, and endures a shameful death. He also becomes the partaker of “Hades,” of this place of darkness and despair… But at this very moment, the real meaning of this death is revealed. The One who dies on the Cross has Life in Himself, i.e., He has life not as a gift from outside, a gift which therefore can be taken away from Him, but as His own essence. For He is the Life and the Source of all life. “In Him was Life and Life was the light of man.” The man Jesus dies, but this Man is the Son of God. As man, He can really die, but in Him, God Himself enters the realm of death, partakes of death. This is the unique, the incomparable meaning of Christ’s death.
In it, the man who dies is God, or to be more exact, the God-man. God is the Holy Immortal; and only in the unity “without confusion, without change, without division,without separation” of God and Man in Christ can human death be “assumed” by God and be overcome and destroyed from within, be “trampled down by death…”
Christ freely accepts death, of His life He says that “no one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord.” (John 10:18) He does it not without a fight: “and He began to be sorrowful and troubled.” (Matthew 26:37) Here is fulfilled the measure of His obedience, and therefore, here is the destruction of the moral root of death, of death as the ransom for sin. The whole life of Jesus is in god as every human life ought to be, and it is this fullness of Life, this life full of meaning and content, full of God, that overcomes death, destroys its power. For death is, above all, a lack of life, a destruction of life that has cut itself from its only source. And because Christ’s death is a movement of love towards God, an act of obedience and trust, of faith and perfection — it is an act of life (Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit — Luke 23:46) which destroys death. It is the death of death itself…
Such is the meaning of Christ’s descent into Hades, of His death becoming His victory. And the light of this victory now illumines our vigil before the Grave.
“In a grave they laid Thee, O my Life and my Christ. Yet behold now, by Thy death, death is stricken down, and Thou pourest forth life’s streams for all the world.”
“O, how full that joy was! O, how great that delight! Wherewith Thou didst fill all them that were held by Hades, when Thou shonest forth Thy light in those dark depths.”
Life enters the Kingdom of death. The Divine Light shines in its terrible darkness.It shines to all who are there, because Christ is the life of all, the only source of every life. Therefore He also dies for all, for whatever happens to His life — happens in Life itself… This descent into Hades is the encounter of the Life of all with the death of all:
Then comes the beautiful Canon of Great Saturday, in which once more all the themes of this service — from the funeral lamentation to the victory over death — are resumed and deepened, and which ends with this order:
“Let all creation rejoice, and all the earth be glad; for Hades and the enemy have been spoiled. Let the women meet me with myrrh; for I redeem Adam along with Eve and all their descendants, and will rise on the third day.” “And will rise on the third day.” From now on paschal joy illumines the service.
We are still standing before the Tomb, but it has been revealed to us as the life-giving Tomb. Life rests in it, a new creation is being born, and once more, on the Seventh Day, the day of rest — the Creator rests from all His work. “The Life sleeps and Hades trembles” — and we contemplate this blessed Sabbath, the solemn quiet of the One who
brings life back to us: “O come let us see our life, resting in the grave…” The full meaning, the mystical depth of the Seventh Day, as the day of fulfillment, the day of achievement is now revealed, for
“…The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day, saying: and God blessed the seventh day. This is the blessed Sabbath; it is the day of rest, and on it the Only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works. He kept the Sabbath in the flesh, through the dispensation of death. But on this day, He returned again through the Resurrection. He has granted us eternal life, for He alone is good, the Lover of mankind.”
We now go around the Church in a solemn procession with the Epitaphios, but it is not a funeral procession. It is the Son of God, the Holy Immortal, who proceeds through the darkness of Hades, announcing to “Adam of all generations” the joy of the forthcoming Resurrection. “Shining as the morning from the night,” He proclaims that “all the dead will rise again, all those in the graves will live, and all those created will rejoice…”
Expectation of Life We return to the Church. We know already the mystery of Christ’s life-giving death. Hades is destroyed. Hades trembles. And now the last theme appears – the theme of Resurrection.
Sabbath, the seventh day, achieves and completes the history of salvation, its last act being the overcoming of death. But after the Sabbath comes the first day of a new creation, of a new life born from the grave. The theme of Resurrection is inaugurated in the Prokeimenon:
“Arise, O Lord, help us, and deliver us, for the glory of Thy name. O God, we have heard with our ears.”
It is continued in the first lesson: the prophecy of Ezekiel on the dry bones.
(Chapter 37) “…there were very many upon the valley; and lo, they were very dry.” It is death triumphing in the world, and the darkness, the hopelessness of this universal sentence to death. But God speaks to the prophet. He announces that this sentence is not the ultimate destiny of man. The dry bones will hear the words of the Lord. The dead will live again. “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel…” Following this prophecy comes the second Prokeimenon, with the same appeal, the same prayer:
“Arise, O Lord my God; lift up Thine hand…” How will it happen, how is this universal Resurrection possible? The second lesson (I Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 3:13-14) gives the answer: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump…” Christ, our Pascha, is this leaven of the Resurrection of all. As His death destroys the very principle of death, His Resurrection is the token of the Resurrection of all, for His life is the source of every life. And the verses of the “Alleluia,” the same verses, which will inaugurate the Pascha service, sanction this final answer, the certitude that the time of the new creation, of the day without evening, has begun:”Alleluia!! Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before His face… Alleluia!! As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish, as wax melts before the fire.”
The reading of the prophecies is over. Yet, we have heard but prophecies. We are still in Great Saturday before Christ’s tomb. And we have to live through this long day,before we hear at midnight: “Christ is risen!”, before we enter into the celebration of His Resurrection. Thus, the third lesson — Matthew 27:62-66 — which completes the service,tells us once more about the Tomb — “So they went and made the sepulcher secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.”
But it is probably here, at the very end of Orthros, that the ultimate meaning of this “middle day” is made manifest. Christ arose from the dead, His Resurrection we will celebrate on Pascha Day. This celebration, however, commemorates a unique event of the past, and anticipates a mystery of the future. It is already His Resurrection, but not yet ours. We will have to die, to accept the dying, the separation, the destruction. Our reality in this world, in this “aeon,” is the reality of the Great Saturday; this day is the real image of our human condition. We believe in the Resurrection, because Christ has risen from the dead. We expect the Resurrection. We know that Christ’s death has
annihilated the power of death, and death is no longer the hopeless, the ultimate end of everything… Baptized into His death, we partake already of His life that came out of the grave. We receive His Body and Blood which are the food of immortality. We have in ourselves the token, the anticipation of the eternal life… All our Christian existence is measured by these acts of communion to the life of the “new aeon” of the Kingdom… and yet we are here, and death is our inescapable share.
But this life between the Resurrection of Christ and the day of the common Resurrection, is it not precisely the life in the Great Saturday? Is not expectation the basic and essential category of Christian experience? We wait in love, hope and faith.
And this waiting for “the Resurrection and the life of the world to come,” this life which is “hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3-4), this growth of expectation in love, in certitude; all this is our own “Great Saturday.” Little by little, everything in this world becomes transparent to the light that comes from there, the “image of this world” passes by and this indestructible life with Christ becomes our supreme and ultimate value.
Every year, on Great Saturday, after this morning service, we wait for the Pascha night and the fullness of Paschal joy. We know that they are approaching — and yet, how slow is this approach, how long is this day! But is not the wonderful quiet of Great Saturday the symbol of our very life in this world? Are we not always in the “middle day,”waiting for the Pascha of Christ, preparing ourselves for the day without evening of His Kingdom?
This is the starting point for our understanding of the sanctification of time. It is the Orthodox experience, which goes back to the apostles themselves, that in the centre of our liturgical life, in the very centre of that time which we measure as year, we find the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection. What is the Resurrection? Resurrection is the appearance in this world, completely dominated by time and therefore by death, of life that shall have not end. The One who rose again from the dead does not die anymore. In this world of ours, not somewhere else, not in any “other” world, there appeared one morning someone who is beyond death and yet in our time. This meaning of Christ’s Resurrection, this great joy, is the central theme of Christianity; and it has been preserved in its fullness in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. There is much truth expressed by those who say that the central theme of Orthodoxy, the centre of all its experience, the frame of reference for everything else in her, is the Resurrection of Christ.
We Orthodox living in the West are in danger of losing this resurrection spirit of Christianity. We are concerned with death much more than with resurrection, and church life sometimes is dominated by the funeral rather than the resurrection type of piety. Yet no one can understand the real structure of the liturgical cycle of the year unless he understands that the center, the day that gives meaning to all days and therefore to all time, is the yearly commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection at Pascha.Pascha is always the end and always the beginning. We are always living after Pascha,and we are always going towards Pascha. The whole spirit and meaning of liturgical life is contained in Pascha, together with the subsequent fifty-day period which culminates in the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. This unique Paschal celebration is reflected every week in the Christian Sunday, the day which Russians, for example, still call Voskresenie, “Resurrection.” Though it man seem strange to you, it is important to realize that every Sunday is a little Pascha. I say “Little Pascha,” but it is really “Great Pascha.” Every week the Church comes to the same central experience: “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ . . .” Every Saturday night,when the Priest carries the Gospel from the Altar to the center of the Church, after he has read the Gospel of the Resurrection, the same fundamental fact of our Christian Faith is proclaimed: CHRIST IS RISEN! St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Cor. 15:14). There is nothing else to believe. This is the heart of our Faith; and it is only the reference to Pascha, as the end of all merely natural time and the beginning of the new time, that we can understand the whole liturgical year.
Pentecost and Pascha Pentecost is the fulfillment of Pascha. If you open a calendar, you will find all our Sundays are called Sundays after Pentecost, and Pentecost itself is fifty days after Pascha.
Pentecost is the fulfillment of Pascha. Christ ascended into heaven and sent down His Holy Spirit. When He sent down His Holy Spirit into the world, a new society was instituted, a body of people, whose took on a new meaning. This new meaning comes directly from Christ’s Resurrection. We are no longer people in meaningless time that leads to a meaningless end. We are given not only a new meaning in life, but even death itself has acquired a new significance. In the troparion of Pascha we say, “trampling down death by death.” We do not say that He trampled down death by the Resurrection,but by death. And although a Christian still faces death, being in this way similar to any other man, death has for him a new significance. It means entering into the Pascha of the Lord, into His own passage from the old into a new life. This is the key to the liturgical year of the Church. Christianity is, first of all, the proclamation in this world of Christ’s Resurrection. Orthodox spirituality is paschal in its inner content, and the real content of the Christian life is joy.
We speak of feasts, and the feast is the expression of Christianity as joy. When you teach children, you convey to them not only certain knowledge but also the spirit which is behind this knowledge. You know that the one thing a child accepts easily is joy.
But we have made our Christianity so adult, so serious, so sad, so solemn, that we have virtually emptied it of that joy. Yet Christ has said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15, and Luke 18:17).
When on Pascha night we stand at the door of the Church and the Priest says, “Christ is Risen,” the night in the words of Gregory of Nyssa, becomes “lighter than the day.” Here is the strength, the real root of the Christian experience. And only within the framework of this joy can we understand everything else.
Let us keep in mind that Pascha is the real beginning of our liturgical year. The year “officially” begins on September 1st; but I am speaking here in terms of its spiritual principle and foundation, because Pascha truly opens our understanding of time. The world was dark, and Someone brought in light and warmth. The world was sad because it had become a cemetery, and Someone said, “Death is no more.” This is what Christ did in this world. It was cold and sinful and cruel, and He came and said, “Rejoice!”
This is the way Christ addressed His disciples. “Rejoice! Peace be with you!” Paschal joy is, therefore, the beginning of Christian experience.