As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, it is easier for people to become even more alienated than usual from the worship services of the Orthodox Church. But today is Lazarus Saturday, the beginning of Holy Week – though this weekend of Palms is a kind of festal break between the end of Lent yesterday and the more focused beginning of Holy Week tomorrow (Sunday) night.
It is sad that over the years the Liturgy of Lazarus Saturday has become one of the least attended services in our parish. Just another manifestation of how people are drifting away from the message of life that abounds in our liturgical services and the annual cycle of feasts? Today, what a pity that we couldn’t meet at the Eucharist on this day that proclaims the victory of life over death, that anticipates the life-giving resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ a week from now. What a day, what a message. “Lazarus, come forth!” Can you hear the Lord speaking today, saying, “Christian, come forth!” “Human, come forth!” In the midst of this coronavirus, can we stop for a moment and contemplate life? Can we take that step and come forth to faith in Christ? Can we see life at the end of the tunnel?
Lazarus Saturday was the favourite day of the year for Father Alexander Schmemann. As my Lazarus message to you today, I want to quote some things he wrote on Lazarus Saturday in the journals that he kept between the years 1973 and 1983, the year of his death from cancer. Actually he only managed one journal entry in 1983. Here are some of the things he wrote over the years for this day of Lazarus.
Saturday, April 6, 1974. “By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy Passion, Thou didst confirm the Universal Resurrection…” really proclaim, really devour death with victory. This feast is the height of Orthodoxy, intimately authentic, its deepest experience. Children’s procession with palms.
Friday, April 25, 1975. And finally we have come to the end of the sixth week of Lent: “Having completed the forty days of the fast…” rise up towards the Holy Week through the pre-Paschal light of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. This year, spring is late, so that at the seminary everything is in bloom: forsythias, purple azaleas, transparent greenery. From early childhood those are my favorite days of the year. And in the background, the nightmare, the bloody end of Indochina and Cambodia, arrests in Russia…
Lazarus Saturday, April 17, 1976. My favorite feast of all feasts. A full church! Children’s procession. A very warm sunshine. I could not work in the afternoon, but spent the time just thinking. I feel such joy that all of us here are today in the same high spirit, all sharing the feast without needless words. Of one mind, of one heart: here is the center of everything; justification, life.
Holy Monday, April 24, 1978. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday. Enthusiasm, joy, connection, communion with the only thing needed. As a special grace, an exceptional radiance, sunshine, light of these two days, blooming trees. Paschal and joyful yellow forsythias. On Saturday, after Liturgy, we went to the cemetery. Lazarus Saturday more than any other day is made for the cemetery because it is “the assurance of the universal resurrection.”… Many confessions. Why can’t people resist almost systematically spoiling each other’s lives? That is the essence of evil. The spoiling of each other’s life is the contrary, the “inside out,” of the love for which man has been created.
Friday, April 9, 1982. End of Great Lent – Lazarus
While looking for a passage in the Gospel of St. John, I read in Christ’s last discourse to his disciples His consolation. They will not see Christ any more, and “so our hearts will be filled with sadness.” But “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you…” (John 16) – like a bolt of lightning. Everything in Christianity depends on love for Christ. Death is the encounter with Him and so it is all joy! But, O God, how far we are from such love – His love that defeated death, the love that defeats death in us.
Father Schmemann was my teacher of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary for three years, 1980-83. My class was most fortunate in that we were the last class to have him as teacher for all three years. The words that I quoted above reveal his immense love for the Church, especially for the worship of the Church. He saw so much joy, so much life-elevating and death-defeating power in the words of our services, especially in the great feasts and the Lent-Pascha cycle. He lived in the world, but his mind and heart did not capitulate to the world. He wrote of the darkness that was in the world – as in the quote from 1975 – but he never allowed that darkness to take away his joy of knowing Christ and the power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. I offer these passages from Father Schmemann’s Journals to help you see beyond the darkness of what we are going through. All the quotes above I have taken from the English version of his journals published by SVS Press. With Father Schmemann I celebrate today the life in Christ that defeats death in us.
To all my Catholic and liturgical Protestant friends, Happy Easter! The Orthodox Easter is next Sunday, a week later – another reminder of the disunity that still exists in the Christian world and keeps the churches separated even in the celebration of the holiest event of our faith. May the resurrection of our Lord also bring resurrection of love and logic to the way churches relate to each other.