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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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“… and also much cattle”

In the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church includes 15 readings from the Old Testament – mostly readings that directly or symbolically refer to the Passover, to Resurrection, or to Baptism. These readings are remnants of the original all-night Paschal Vigil which developed in the church during the centuries of its prominence in the Roman Empire. Indeed, the entire baptismal character of this Holy Saturday Liturgy reminds us that the most important day for baptisms in the first millennium of the church was precisely this holiest night of the Paschal Vigil.

In many of today’s Orthodox churches, this original group of 15 readings has been reduced to just three (Genesis 1:1-13; Jonah 1:1-4:11; Daniel 3:1-23 & Song of the Three Youths from the Septuagint). Undoubtedly this is a surrender to the short attention spans of modern churchgoers, but it’s also a recognition that this is no longer the Paschal Vigil. It is a Liturgy on the morning of Holy Saturday, and there remains hardly any baptismal connection – though it is not uncommon for adult baptisms to be scheduled on this morning, as part of the Liturgy. The Greek traditions in particular have reduced this most sacred Liturgy of the year to a mere communion service for the once-a-year crowds. A shocking and inexcusable betrayal of what is best in the Orthodox liturgical tradition.

One of the three readings that still remain is the entire Book of Jonah. Undoubtedly the reason for its inclusion in the Paschal Vigil was the statement that Jesus made to the Pharisees that questioned him: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4; also Matthew 12:38-39). The church has always taken this statement of Jesus as a prophecy of his death and resurrection. So the hymnography of Easter constantly compares the 3-day burial of Christ to the three days that Jonah spent in the whale; with the resurrection itself prefigured by the emergence of Jonah from the whale.

But is that all there is to the saying of Jesus about “the sign of Jonah”? I doubt it. As so often happened in the Christian tradition, starting with the New Testament itself, proof texts from the Old Testament were used as “prophecies” of Christ, even when violence was done to the original context of the Hebrew writings. No wonder Jews have always been angry at how Christians have used (or misused) their scriptures!

Medieval icon of Jonah (click to enlarge)

Medieval icon of Jonah (click to enlarge)

Did Jesus himself explain what he meant by “sign of Jonah”? Yes, he did, and it’s a multifaceted explanation. In Matthew 12:40 he gives the interpretation that is favored by church tradition: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Not quite accurate, of course, since Jesus was not three days and three nights in the tomb, more like a day-and-a-half and two nights, but biblical time is never about scientific precision. It’s the symbolism that is important, not the scientific or mathematical accuracy.

But that’s not the only interpretation Jesus gave. In Matthew 12:41 he goes on to say: The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” Jesus here points to the whole of his ministry, not just his death and resurrection! The whole of his ministry had to do with repentance and wisdom, leading humanity back to God. But humanity will be judged for rejecting the ministry of Jesus.

In Luke 11:29-32, Jesus repeats the statements about the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South, but the interpretation he offered here did not include a reference to his burial and resurrection! Instead, he said: When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin′eveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30).

I believe Luke’s version is closer to what Jesus said and meant. Matthew tended to be more concerned with “fulfillment of prophecies” (even when the “fulfillment” was forced on the original Hebrew texts), but Luke seems to have had less need of this type of use of the Old Testament.

The episodes of Jonah's story (click to enlarge)

The episodes of Jonah’s story (click to enlarge)

What was the sign that God gave to the people of Nineveh through Jonah? Mercy. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to preach to them and warn them of God’s judgment (Jonah 3). Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people repented! But instead of rejoicing that his message had succeeded, Jonah became angry and despondent.

Chapter 4 of the book of Jonah describes a rather strange dialogue between Jonah and God which I’m not going to try to analyze here. Suffice it to say that the conversation revolves around God’s mercy. Jonah admits so much: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” God at the end exposes Jonah’s anger as misplaced and delivers the coup de grâce: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” And that’s how the book of Jonah ends, with God’s concern for cattle!

20257367-standardWhy am I thinking of Jonah two months after Holy Saturday and Pascha? Because of Father Dan Berrigan. He died this year, at the age of 94, on April 30th, exactly on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church. Father Berrigan was a Catholic priest, known especially for his activism against the Vietnam War and social justice. I have been a reader of his many books for several years and I was reading some pages today in his book Minor Prophets, Major Themes. In the chapter on Jonah, I read:

This God, thinks Jonah, how is he to be borne? He changes plans without once consulting with his prophet. A courtesy to be sure, and long due. He bends low, lends ear to humans and their lunatic behavior.

[And what of God?] The last word belongs to Him. It concerns children and animals, which is to say, the future of living things. Whose well being, one concludes, was of small concern to Jonah.

But as to how this last word of God’s tenderness was received, what change it wrought, where it beckoned our hero?

Perhaps more to the point, where it beckons ourselves?

For “a Greater than Jonah is here.”

Today, also, the preachers of gloom and doom proclaim judgment on sinners but don’t expect mercy. Just like Jonah, they relish thoughts of punishment; God’s mercy and tenderness come as a surprise to them.

Mercy, tenderness, concern for the future of life – here is the real message of Jonah. And this is the message of Holy Saturday and Christ’s Resurrection. This is the message every day of the church’s life and on every page of Scripture. “And also much cattle” – all life is sacred to God. We don’t know if Jonah got it in the end. That is why a “greater than Jonah” came: to bring the message home, to plant it in our hearts.

The “sign of Jonah” is simply the coming of Christ to be our advocate, our friend, our companion on the path. He is a sign to us of God’s mercy and forgiveness. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so the Son of Man is a sign to us (cf. Luke 11:30).


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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?


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!