Please get to church for this service. I’m sending out this Blog a full day early, so you can plan. If you cannot get to church, find yourself a place to worship live-stream tonight. This is too beautiful to miss – my favorite service of the year.
Is this a funeral service? Is this a celebration? The answers are: Yes!
We stand before the bier on which Christ is laid out before us. On the Epitaphios see His Body lying stone cold dead, with His Blessed Virgin Mother and Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus and the Holy Women and often holy angels mourning. We join in singing Lamentations over Him. This derives from an ancient Mediterranean custom of women singing laments at peoples’ deaths.
sung by the Boston Byzantine Choir (on the excellent “Orthodox Christian Chants” site): https://www.youtube.com/@orthodoxchristianchants5006
At about 10 minutes 45 seconds the Third Stasis begins the beloved hymn: “Every generation to thy tomb comes grieving to sing its hymn of praise to thee, O Savior.”
Listen carefully: Throughout these long * Lamentations over Christ, the words of lament are not put in our mouths. The Orthodox Church does not dwell much on Christ’s suffering, great as it was. For deep down even at His lowest moment when it felt to Him like His Father had forsaken Him, He knew what He was doing and what would be the outcome.
- The Lamentations appointed for monastic use are much longer.
Rather tonight we hear the laments of his Blessed Mother, for she did not know. Have you ever considered what she went through? She suffered as no other mortal on earth has ever suffered. Not only was her only Son dead, but also she alone knew who her Son was – the Son of God come to save the world, and He had failed. They have destroyed Him. And so there is no hope for the world, no hope for mankind, no hope for anyone ever. Life may continue, but now in the end it will all come to nothing, only darkness and destruction in this world and the next – for God has failed! It was the ultimate horror.
She alone, all alone, knew what her Son’s death meant. There was no one who could comfort her. That poor dear blessed Woman! Truly “the Mother of Sorrows”, as Roman Catholics call her. Truly, as Elder Simeon had prophesied, “A sword will pierce your own heart also.”
But even in the Lamentations, there are words of hope for the coming Resurrection. And soon, very soon, she would not sorrow or lament: “The angel cried to the Woman full of grace: Rejoice, rejoice,… your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb!” Think what inexpressible joy those words brought her. That is why on Pascha we make a point of rejoicing with her. For now she and we know: In the End, if we have lived and died with Jesus Christ, in Christ, there will be nothing for us to lament, for her Son has risen victorious.
Late in the service, something happens which almost overwhelms me year after year. We all process out of the church, when that is possible, following Christ’s Body laid out on the Epitaphios – in the way people lay out their departed at funerals. We become part of Christ’s funeral procession. Following His precious Body, we go out into the darkness, into death. Some Orthodox walk three times around the church. Then coming back into the church we all pass under the Epitaphion – one by one, yet all together – in symbol passing through death with Christ.
Don’t you see: We are “acting out” what happens when we die. We follow Christ into death – our death, His death – into the darkness, alone yet not alone.
And when we come out from under the Epitaphion, where do we find ourselves? In church, still in The Church! We are still alive. We are still with Him. We are still with each other.
In this life we live with Christ in His Church. We die with Christ in His Church. And after you and I have departed and “passed on”, we will still be in the Church. Through it all, nothing essential has changed. Christians have sometimes called death “falling asleep”/”kimissis” in Greek. We fall asleep with Jesus. We awake over there with Jesus.
Jesus Christ has conquered death and hell. He has broken down the boundaries between Heaven and earth. His Church is a supernatural community which encompasses Heaven and earth. All things in all worlds are One in Him.
Brothers and sisters, if you are with Jesus Christ, do not fear death. We pray for the “departed”, don’t we? our way of saying that when people die they have only gone on a journey. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms…”, and we pass from this room to the next. “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also.” And that’s all there is to it.
At the very end, the Lamentations service almost becomes a celebration, even though His Resurrection on earth doesn’t come till tomorrow night. Tomorrow morning we will have the first Divine Liturgy of Pascha, celebrating Christ’s victory over hell and death “down below”. He has now descended into hell, hades, the “underworld”, sheol, that “lower dimension”, the dark place of the dead – one translation calls it “the land where all things are forgotten” – where the dead from all times were held captive by Satan and where he intended that they finally fade into nothingness.
But no more. Now Christ is driving Satan crazy, rescuing the dead of all times – past, present, future – leading them, leading us up into the light, into life again. We will see that tomorrow night in our Paschal icon, and then for the next Forty Days we will sing the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At the end of tonight’s service, in the Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 37:1–14) Ezekiel is asked “Can these bones live?”. That was a multi-dimensional question: First about the “bones” of Israel, their nation laid level by the Babylonians. Then, by way of prophecy about Christ’s bones. Can He rise again? And then about our bones. Can we be raised again from death? The answer in all three cases is Yes! Yes! Yes!
Yes – We believe not only in a bodiless spiritual afterlife, but “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.” Christ promised that at the Last Day all who lie in the graves will rise. At the End, all good things will be raised again and restored. “A new Heaven and a new Earth.” John wrote, “We will be like Him”, like Jesus Christ as He was and still is, risen from the dead.
Already in tonight’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 5:6-8) we hear: “Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” Therefore, let us keep the Feast.”
In the Gospel we return to His Tomb on earth (Matthew 27:62-66), with a great stone still sealing the door, and we must wait just a little while longer.
Near the end comes this hymn, which is actually a Sunday Resurrection Apolytikion/Troparion). Here’s what is now happening there in the depths. We can almost hear Satan screaming in cosmic frustration.
When thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, thou didst slay hell with the splendor of thy Godhead: and when from the depths thou didst raise the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out: O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to thee!
Next Posts will arrive sometime soon for Saturday Morning: First Divine Liturgy of Pascha.