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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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The Cross of Holy Friday

Giles Fraser is a brilliant religion commentator for the Guardian newspaper of London, and I’ve referred to him in a previous post. He is Anglican, but seems to have an immense understanding of all Christian traditions, including our own Eastern tradition. He is also able to communicate the deepest truths of Christianity in our contemporary historical setting.

On this Holy and Great Friday in the Orthodox Church he wrote a brilliant commentary, which I thoroughly recommend: Arguments over Greek debt echo ancient disputes about Easter.

It is refreshing every year to go through the many, many services of Holy Week and see how little emphasis we Orthodox place on gruesome images of the Cross. Of course we read the Gospel passages that detail all the events of Christ’s passion; and of course we understand the saving power of the Cross. But this saving power of the Cross is seen in cosmic and enduring terms. The Cross of Christ is not a once-and-for-all deal that God made to repay an “infinite debt” that we human owed to God. God is not a banker or tyrannical taskmaster who wants repayment at all cost!

We are sinners, and we needed salvation. But the Cross is more than a payment of debt. If there are any Orthodox references to “debt” they are minor. The Matins of Holy Friday (which is usually observed on Thursday night) shows little awareness of that idea, as Giles Fraser correctly perceives. The emphasis instead is on man’s rebellion – reflected especially in Judas’ betrayal and the actions of the Jewish leaders. The hymns of Holy Friday that we heard Thursday night and will hear this afternoon in the Vespers service do carry a lot of anti-Jewish baggage; and that’s one area we Orthodox need to clean up our act and clean up our language. But all those black-robed and bearded leftovers of a bygone era (like the ones pictured in the Guardian article) will not let the church modify our liturgical and hymnographical wealth – and that’s the tragic reality of today’s Orthodox Church.

Nevertheless, despite the anti-Jewish overtones and occasionally ugly language, the hymns do resound with the truths of Scripture rather than human inventions such as the language of “debt”! The references are always to God’s past history with his people and their continuing rebellion against God’s goodness:

Pharisees and lawgivers of Israel, the company of the Apostles calls out to you: “Behold the temple which you have destroyed; behold the Lamb whom you have crucified. You consigned him to the tomb, but by his own power he arose. Do not deceive yourselves. For it is he who saved you from the sea and fed you in the wilderness. He is life and light and the peace of the world.”

These words echo the judgments of the Hebrew prophets (Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, etc.) in the centuries before Christ. But they are also addressed to us, who continue to rebel against even greater acts of God’s benevolence. If Israel of old was guilty of ingratitude for the liberation from Egypt, how much greater our own guilt when we ignore the gift of Christ?! Reflecting on our own sins and acts of rebellion should modify any anti-Semitic thoughts we may harbor.

The Cross is God’s final answer to human rebellion. God did not allow his Son to be crucified in order for his wrath to be appeased or for a “debt” to be repaid. God allowed his Son to be crucified in order to show how great is our rebellion! Preaching will only go so far. The prophets preached and preached against the people’s rebelliousness, but achieved nothing. And the Christian tradition has cheapened their message even further by turning Isaiah and the other prophets into forecasters of Christ’s coming – instead of seeing their messages as ever- and always-relevant to every generation.

More seriously, even with the Cross in front of us we continue to sin and rebel against God’s goodness. But there is no other solution. The Cross is the “final solution” to human sinfulness and rebellion. The Cross was God’s victory over evil and sin. One of the most powerful expressions of what the Cross means was written by Paul in his letter to the Colossians (though most scholars believe this letter was not written by Paul himself, but by one of his followers or disciples):

When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:12-15)

Though worldly and spiritual powers imagined they defeated Jesus on the Cross, on the contrary the Cross was God’s victory over the worldly and spiritual powers that rebel against God’s goodness. Death was mocked, as we so loudly proclaim at the midnight Liturgy of Easter/Pascha.

The Epitaphios Icon of Holy and Great Friday (

The Epitaphios Icon of Holy and Great Friday (

But note in this quote from Colossians, that even the Law and the “legal demands” that God gave to Moses and the people of Israel are renounced and put into the same category as the powers and rulers that oppose God! This is one of my own favorite passages in the Bible: it is an amazing, revolutionary thought! And if you really take Paul’s thought seriously, it is a rejection of every religious system!

The Cross was God’s victory over every system that aims to control human life. God nailed all worldly and spiritual powers to the Cross and demonstrated their futility. We subject ourselves to teachers and systems that pretend to improve us, only to discover how pointless they are. Every fad diet, every new age spirituality, every system of self-improvement and self-realization, and indeed most forms of Christian preaching: they are all powerless, unable to achieve anything, because they were proven to be empty and futile on the Cross!

The powers and systems were defeated on the Cross. Death itself, the final enemy, is mocked and defeated at the Resurrection. To reduce the Cross of Christ to a transaction is a crime like the crucifixion itself!

The Cross is a cosmic victory and the hymns of Holy and Great Friday see it in cosmic terms. Consider the hymn sung when the Cross is carried around the church:

Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου, ὁ ἐν ὕδασι τὴν γῆν κρεμάσας. Στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν περιτίθεται, ὁ τῶν Ἀγγέλων Βασιλεύς. Ψευδῆ πορφύραν περιβάλλεται, ὁ περιβάλλων τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν νεφέλαις. Ῥάπισμα κατεδέξατο, ὁ ἐν Ἰορδάνῃ ἐλευθερώσας τὸν Ἀδάμ. Ἥλοις προσηλώθη, ὁ Νυμφίος τῆς Ἐκκλησίας. Λόγχῃ ἐκεντήθη, ὁ Υἱὸς τῆς Παρθένου. Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ. Δεῖξον ἡμῖν, καὶ τὴν ἔνδοξόν σου Ἀνάστασιν.

Today is hung on the Wood the one who hung the earth upon the waters. The King of the angels is crowned with thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who freed Adam in the Jordan now receives blows upon his face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The son of the virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate your Passion, O Christ. Show us also your glorious Resurrection.

Note how the Cross is placed in the cosmic symbolism of creation and the sanctification that came through the incarnation! Note the sequence of Orthodox salvation theology, all reflected in this hymn:

Cosmic Creation — Incarnation — Cross — Resurrection

Rebellion against God is universal, cosmic even. So God’s answer is cosmic! The Cross is about more than me and my personal relationship with God. All self-absorption and self-nonsense is defeated on the Cross. The Resurrection is in front of us. Let us look to the answers it provides on this holiest three-day weekend of the year.

Detail of the Epitaphios Icon (

Detail of the Epitaphios Icon ( – Click to further enlarge.