Saturday of Lazarus

“Having fulfilled Forty Days… we ask to see the Holy Week of Thy Passion.” With these words sung at Vespers of Friday, Lent comes to its end and we enter into the annual commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death and Resurrection. It begins on the Saturday of Lazarus. The dual feast of Lazarus’ resurrection and the Entrance of the Lord to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) is described in liturgical texts as the “beginning of the Cross” and is to be understood therefore, within the context of the Holy Week. The troparion sung on these days explicitly affirms that by raising Lazarus from the dead Christ confirmed the truth of general resurrection. It is highly significant that we are led into the darkness of the Cross by one of the twelve major feasts of the Church. Light and joy shine not only at the end of Holy Week but also at its beginning.

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 highlights one central theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for death. It is that inescapable 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 offers to 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 Life-giving Tomb.

Great and Holy Saturday

This is the Blessed Sabbath. 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”, or “middle day”, remains obscure. For a good majority of churchgoers, the “important” days of 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 Orthodox 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. All this is expressed, and even more, all this really takes place every year in this marvellous morning service, in this liturgical commemoration which becomes for us a saving and transforming present.

On coming to the Church on the morning of Holy Saturday, Friday has just been liturgically completed. The sorrow of Friday is, therefore, the initial theme, the starting point of Matins of Saturday. It begins as a funeral service, as a lamentation over a dead body. After the singing of the funeral troparia and a slow censing of the church, the celebrants approach the Epitaphion. We stand at the grave of our Lord, we contemplate His death. Psalm 119 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 beginning, along with this initial theme of sorrow and lamentation, a new theme makes its appearance and will become more and more apparent. We find it, first of all, in Psalm 119 – “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.”

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 119 is the psalm of that obedience, and therefore the announcement that in obedience the triumph has begun.

But why does the Father desire this death? Why is it necessary? The death of Christ is described as His descent into Hades. “Hades” in the concrete Biblical language means the realm of death, which God has not created and which He did not want; it also signifies that the Prince of this world is all powerful in the world. Satan, Sin, Death – these are the “dimensions” of Hades, its content. For sin comes from Satan and Death is the result of sin – “sin entered the world, and death by sin.” (Romans 5:12).

The entire universe after the fall had become a cosmic cemetery, it was condemned to destruction and despair. And this is why death is “the last enemy,” (1 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 that “for this hour have I come.” (John 12:27) Now this hour has come and the Son of God enters into Death. The Holy Fathers of the Church usually describe this moment as a duel between Christ and 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. 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.”

Death is Overcame by Life. Now we understand why God desires that death, why the Father gives His Only Begotten Son to it. He desires the salvation of man. Hence the necessity of the Incarnation and the necessity of that Divine death. Death was not only destroyed by God, but was overcome and trampled down in human nature itself by man and through man.

“For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” (1 Corinthians 15;21) 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.

However, 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 – ‘which was made secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” But it is probably here, at the end of Matins, that the ultimate meaning of this “middle day” is made manifest. Christ arose again from the dead. His Resurrection we will celebrate the next day on Pascha (Easter). 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, 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 is no longer the hopeless ultimate end of everything, Baptised 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 eon” 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. We wait for “the Resurrection and the life of the world to come” (see Nicene Creed).

Every year, on Great and Holy Saturday, after this morning service, we wait for the Easter 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 this “middle day,” waiting for the Pascha of Christ, preparing ourselves for the day without evening of His Kingdom?

Pascha – An explosion of Joy

Christ is Risen!
“Let all creation celebrate the rising of Christ”

The bright night of Pascha has finally arrived. The priest has put on his most splendid and bright vestments, the Resurrection icon in the Church has been decorated with flowers, altar boys are holding candles, censors and banners. Literally thousands of people have come Church dressed in their finest clothes, holding candles and waiting for the priest to announce the resurrection of Christ. Now everything is dark and silent.

The priest suddenly comes out inviting all to come and receive the true light who is Christ. The priest then makes his way to the front of the church where he will sing along with the choir: “Christ is Risen from the dead, by death trampling upon death and on those in the tombs bestowing life”.

And all of a sudden everything is flooded with light and bursting with joy. The faithful greet each other saying “Christ is Risen” “Truly He is risen”! In fact this affirmation that “Christ is Risen” contains the entire essence of the Christian faith.

During this explosion of resurrection joy, where night literally becomes brighter than day, you might ask yourself:
“So what! ….what has this event, which took place nearly two thousand years ago have to do with me? What does this event really mean? What does it mean to celebrate Holy Pascha in a world filled with so much suffering, hatred, triviality, war and hunger and death? What does it all mean when we sing “by death trampling upon death” when death is all around us and will surely come to us as well, despite the fact that in our day to day hurry we forget the absolute certainty of death?” Are we simply kidding ourselves when we come together on this radiant and triumphant night of Pascha , … are we momentarily escaping from reality, taking a spiritual drinking binge which sooner or later will bring us face to face with our sober routine in life, that same grey and even apparent inevitability of death and non-existence? Is this all a fabrication, a mirage to delude us from reality? Does the night end only to find ourselves coming back to earth to reenter our normal state of affairs where nothing has changed?

One possible answer to all these questions is that it is not possible for this inexplicable joy which has gladdened the hearts of people for so many centuries to be all a fabrication. The saints of our church have experienced and reflected upon this joy and have articulated it for our benefit so we too can experience the beauty of living with the risen Lord. Being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 2:16) means that our whole being – both body and soul – will not find rest until it has experienced the light of the risen Lord. In fact when we realise we have been created to experience the living Christ and come to accept it, we have begun to experience Heaven right down here on earth. Sadly however, when we realise this truth of being created in the image and likeness of God and do not accept it, this is our hell.

Like the saints of our church, we too have to leave ourselves open, and allow room for God to enter within us. Then we too we will be filled with a joy that is so utterly independent from anything in this world. Our soul and heart thirsts passionately for this but too often cold reason seems to take over and rule us. I think that if we search the deepest recesses of our conscience we will realise that there is more to life than what we simply see around us. The good news is that Christ is alive today and can also visit us, illumine and sanctify us, only if we allow Him. In the gospel of St John, Christ says “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you” (John 14:18). We too can experience the joy and thrill of meeting Christ by feeling His presence in prayer, in the Church and in the Sacraments (especially in Holy Communion). Jesus says that He loves and shows Himself to anybody who loves Him (cf. John 14:21).

We have to allow the Church to take us back to the events of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection so that we too may experience what the first Christians saw in the first century. We too should cry at the Cross and experience everything that occurred nearly two thousands years ago. On Holy Saturday, when Christ is in the tomb, we should feel the excitement and hope that the first Christians felt knowing that Christ would be victorious over death. The entire celebration is an invitation to sing with the Church:
This is the day of the Resurrection
Let us be illumined by this celebration
Let us embrace each other,
Let us call “brothers and sisters” even those who hate us
And forgive all by the Resurrection
And so let us cry: Christ is Risen from the dead,
by death trampling on death
and on those in the tombs bestowing life!

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia