The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he wrote: “And God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath, this is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all his works…
Except he really didn’t rest. Though his body lay in a tomb, in spirit he descended into the realm of Death and liberated all humanity. It is the holiest of all Sabbaths, a Sabbath for the entire world, for all humanity, for all creation! Everything needs liberation from the inevitability of death and decay and the fear that is produced by those realities. Jesus descended into the lowest depths of human non-existence to make everything new! It is the new creation that is announced on this Holy and Great Saturday. God rested on the seventh day after the original creation (Genesis 2:2). Now, on this new seventh day, Jesus creates again: he creates new hearts and minds, new lives, and a new way of relating to God and to each other. Are you in? Are you experiencing the new creation?
We began this Holy Saturday last night (Friday) with Matins and the singing of the Lamentations along with many other glorious and beautiful hymns. We processed outside the church in the darkness, carrying our lit candles, following the embroidered image of Christ in the tomb, the Epitaphios. Then, as the Epitaphios was held high aloft by four able-bodied men, we all went under it and re-entered the church. We all went under it as an act of renewal of our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. His labor is also our labor; his rest is also our rest. The new creation is universal or it is nothing. Saint Paul tells us plainly in his letter to the Romans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation… itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)
You see, we are one with each other, with all creation; and most wonderful and gloriously, with God through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the one Holy Spirit that adopts us as children of God.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)
And thus, with all this as the foundation, Paul is able to rise to eloquent heights with powerful affirmation:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
This is the message of Holy and Great Saturday, even though we don’t read chapter 8 of Romans; we read chapter 6, verses 3-11, at the Liturgy on Saturday morning:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This is the same Epistle passage that we read at every Baptism. Also at this Liturgy we sing the same hymn we sing at every Baptism: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia.” All this reminds us that in the early centuries of the Church, this day and this evening, leading up to the announcement of Christ’s Resurrection, was the time for the baptism of new Christians. It is the celebration of new creation. Everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ and is a new creation, Paul tells us. And as new creation, we share the destiny of all of God’s works. And that destiny is glory! Glory, not postponed to a future eternity, but glory that begins right here, in this life, when we allow ourselves to be transformed by the liberating power of Christ that comes to us through the Holy Spirit.
This is the day of Christ’s rest, the holiest of all Sabbaths, a Sabbath for all humanity and for all creation! But before we celebrate the new creation in the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, we remember the original creation through 15 readings from the Hebrew Bible (called “Old Testament” by the Church). These 15 readings have unfortunately been reduced to only 3 in modern Greek parish use, because it has been presumed that people don’t want to hear long stretches of the Bible. That has not been my experience. I believe that most Orthodox people are hungry for God’s Word and for serious explanation of God’s Word. Here in the United States, the Orthodox Church in America has preserved all 15 readings, believing in the genuine devotion of God’s people. Perhaps some day the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will also appreciate the value of all these 15 readings and reinstate them in parish use. There is now no excuse, especially when we read the Bible in English translation that everyone can understand! Without these readings, our liturgical observance of Holy and Great Saturday is incomplete. Two of these readings, the 6th and 15th, conclude with sung portions that add to the joy of this beautiful day. The readings are worth exploring as a personal act of meditation on the meanings of this day:
- Genesis 1:1-13
- Isaiah 60:1-16
- Exodus 12:1-11
- Jonah 1:1-4:11
- Joshua 5:10-15
- Exodus 13:20-15:19
- Zephaniah 3:8-15
- 3 Kings 17:8-24
- Isaiah 61:10-62:5
- Genesis 22:1-18
- Isaiah 61:1-9
- 4 Kings 4:8-37
- Isaiah 63:11-64:5
- Jeremiah 31:31-34
- Daniel 3:1-23; Song of the Three: 1-66 with verses
By the end of the morning Liturgy we are already in the time of Christ’s Resurrection – which is why in Greece this Liturgy is popularly known as the First Resurrection, Η πρώτη Ανάσταση. Tonight at Midnight we will proclaim the Lord’s Resurrection openly and sing the joyful hymn, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” But the Resurrection is already a reality, on this holiest Sabbath. Enter into the creative, renewing rest of your Lord! And then, say with all your heart: CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!