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“L’chaim!” from the Grave

 

Ανοίξω το στόμα μου και πληρωθήσεται πνεύματος, και λόγον ερεύξομαι…”I shall open my mouth and it will be filled with the spirit, and the word will flow forth”…says a well-known hymn of the Orthodox Church.

God asks every one of us to open our mouths to speak and let the Holy Spirit do the rest of the work. So I received an urgent call to speak this Holy Friday evening at the Epitaphios service (the Matins of Holy Saturday).

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” is how Proverbs 29:18 reads in the King James Version of the Bible. But modern translations are far less dramatic: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible) – more accurate perhaps but not as urgent, not as immediately meaningful.

This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great Americans of the 20th century, a man who spoke of vision, who dreamed of liberation for his people. But on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, he has been domesticated. His radical message has been co-opted and softened by men who opposed him and the civil rights movement he led. He has been domesticated by statues and a national holiday. That is why Dorothy Day, another great American radical of the 20th century used to say, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Χριστός ανέστη και ζωή πολιτεύεται is one of the acclamations in the homily of St. John Chrysostom that we will read tomorrow night at midnight at the Matins of Pascha. Christ is Risen, and Life reigns, Life governs!

Η ζωή εν τάφω, κατετέθης Χριστέ, καί Αγγέλων στρατιαί εξεπλήττοντο, συγκατάβασιν δοξάζουσαι τήν σήν. This was the first of the many verses that make up the so-called “Lamentations” which we sang tonight. The translation we sang is very poor: “In a grave they laid You, O my Life and my Christ, and the armies of the angels were sore amazed, as they sang the praise of Your submissive love.” It sings well, it fits very well the Greek melody, but the translation is poor.

Η ζωή εν τάφω. Our Epitaphios on April 6th.

Η ζωή εν τάφω – “The life in the grave.” There is no “my” in the Greek. It is an absolute, apocalyptic truth that is proclaimed. There is Life in the grave! There is life in the midst of a death culture. And we are surrounded by a culture of death: Death by guns, by drugs, by abortions, by terrorism and wars, by poverty. Politicians and economic systems celebrate the death of the environment and our home planet. Death dominates our movies, music, TV shows, social media. Even our everyday talk.

We are to be the life in this death culture! That is the message tonight. That is the message now! A vision of life that transcends the petty concerns and hatreds that this culture of death instills in us every day, every minute! The vision here tonight is life in the grave. Do not be deceived. The powers of this worldly system have already been defeated by Christ on the Cross – not at the Second Coming, but at the Cross! Saint Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Colossians: And you, who were dead in trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it

On the Cross, Christ defeated the powers and principalities. But we are still under their spell, because we refuse to surrender to the message of life that comes from the grave of Christ. From the grave! It is from the grave that Christ communicates life to us. By sharing in our own deaths he communicates life. By descending into the death ruled by the powers and principalities, he shows us how to transcend and how to overcome the spiral of death that seeks to envelop us; not just physical death, but mental and spiritual and relational death! Life is the message tonight. Life and life only – as only a Jew could proclaim. So Jesus the Jew greets you tonight with life. L’chaim! Why not turn to someone near you, different from anyone you came with, and greet him or her with l’chaim.


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A Sabbath for the whole world

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?

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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:

  1. Genesis 1:1-13
  2. Isaiah 60:1-16
  3. Exodus 12:1-11
  4. Jonah 1:1-4:11
  5. Joshua 5:10-15
  6. Exodus 13:20-15:19
  7. Zephaniah 3:8-15
  8. 3[1] Kings 17:8-24
  9. Isaiah 61:10-62:5
  10. Genesis 22:1-18
  11. Isaiah 61:1-9
  12. 4[2] Kings 4:8-37
  13. Isaiah 63:11-64:5
  14. Jeremiah 31:31-34
  15. 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!

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