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Great and Holy Saturday Evening

by Monk James

It is finished.’ said Jesus (JN 19:30), and then He died.

The holy Church has kept a silent widow’s vigil at the tomb of her Bridegroom for many hours now. No liturgical services have been held since we replaced the Lord’s Shroud in the tomb, long before dawn. Everything -- nature, the world, the Church -- is silent, pregnant with hopeful anticipation.

Late in the afternoon of Holy Saturday (around 4:00 PM, according to the Typikon), we assemble once more for the Evening Service. As we know, the liturgical day begins at sunset; the first service, then, of any given liturgical day is the Evening Service. The Lord’s Paskha is no exception, and it is during the Evening Service at the end of Holy Saturday afternoon that the Church begins to celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

A series of fifteen selections from the writings of the prophets of the Old Covenant is read, each of them a statement of the world’s condition and a prediction of Christ’s death and resurrection. After the last prophecy, Psalm 81 is chanted with great solemnity, its verses separated by a refrain comprising that psalm’s last verse: ‘Arise, O God! Judge the earth, for You will have an inheritance in all the nations.’

While Psalm 81 is being chanted, the clergy change from the dark-colored robes they have been wearing, and vest themselves in bright-colored robes. All the hangings and drapery, as well as the covers of the Holy Table and the Table of Preparation are also changed from dark colors to bright, as is the veil of the Altar. When the change is completed, the Holy Doors are opened and the refrain ‘Arise, O God!’ is sung one last triumphant time.

The first Gospel of the resurrection is then read in the midst of a congregation often moved to tears of joy. The service then continues, not with the hymns of evening, but with the Divine Liturgy of St Basil. In some places, the Lord’s tomb is still in the nave, and it is used as the Holy Table for this eucharistic liturgy, but this is a distortion of liturgical symbolism. The Holy Table in the Altar is always regarded as the place where the Lord’s Body reposes, no more and no less on Holy Saturday than on any other day.

A fragment of the ancient and now rarely used Divine Liturgy of St James is sung today in place of the ‘Hymn of the Kerubim’: ‘Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand trembling in awe, contemplating nothing earthly within itself. For the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, comes forth to be slain, and to give Himself as food to the faithful. The angelic choirs go before Him, with all the Principalities and Powers, the many-eyed Kerubim and the six-winged Seraphim, who cover their faces as they chant the hymn: HaleluYah! HaleluYah! HaleluYah!'

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the rubrics direct that the faithful be given a little bread and wine, some dates or figs, sometimes kolyva (a sweet, cold dish of boiled grain and fruit, often associated with funerals and memorial services) to sustain them, since the Triodion assumes that they will remain in prayer in the temple until the Midnight Service begins some four or five hours later. Clearly, this pattern depends on following the Typikon’s instruction to make this the latest Divine Liturgy of the entire year, but this custom becomes impracticable when it is served on the morning of Holy Saturday, as it unfortunately is in many places. As a result of this dislocation of liturgical time, the laity have generally taken to having a light supper on Holy Saturday, which then enjoys the distinction of being the only Saturday of the year on which oil is not permitted as a relaxation of the fast.

During the hours between the Divine Liturgy and the Midnight Service, the Acts of the Apostles is read at a lectern near the tomb of Christ by several readers in turn. As often as the reading of Acts is completed, it is begun again, and this process is repeated as many times as it takes to fill the time before the Midnight Service. The holy Church has appointed the Acts of the Apostles to be read at this time because it is full of the testimonies of the first Christians concerning Christ's divine resurrection (S.V. Bulgakov). After all, one of the most important qualifications of apostleship is being a witness to the resurrection of the Lord (ACTS 1:22).

Several events are commemorated on Holy Saturday: the burial of Christ, His proclaiming salvation to the prisoners of Haides (1 PET 3:18-21), and His repose after completing the work of salvation.

There are two ikons venerated in relation to these events: one represents the Lord’s descent to Haides, and the other merely suggests His physical resurrection from the dead; it is important to realize that neither of them depicts Christ’s rising from His tomb. Rather, in the first and most common ikon, Christ is portrayed in Haides as He releases all the ‘ancient prisoners’ (Oktoekhos). Their locks and chains strewn about, He tramples the broken gates of Haides -- which He told us will never overpower the Church (MT 16:18). ‘With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ (DT 5:15), He raises our father Adam (Hebrew _’adam_ ‘human’) and our mother Eve (Hebrew hawwah, ‘life’) from the pit of decay.

He pulls them up to safety, to salvation and everlasting life, just as He pulled up St Peter when he began to sink beneath the waves, just as He pulls us up when we, like Peter, cry out to Him: ‘Lord, save me!’ (MT 14:30-31).

Surrounding the dynamic center of the ikon’s action, we see the Lord’s disciples, along with the prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Covenant who foretold this blessed day, and who are now being raised to everlasting life with Adam and Eve. Satan, or a personification of Death (there is no functional difference), is often portrayed as a monster bound hand and foot below his broken gates, helpless now to exercise any authority over those whom Christ has saved from everlasting death.

Portrayals of Christ standing in an opened sarcophagus, triumphant banner in hand, or emerging from a tomb’s dark doorway cannot, under any circumstances, be considered appropriate subjects for orthodox ikons. Although these are common themes in the religious art of heterodox Christians, they are fictions created by the minds of artists, and they are devoid of theological significance since they have no scriptural point of reference. In fact, it might be said that such imaginary representations attempt to edit the Gospel.

No one witnessed Christ’s emergence from the tomb. It has been suggested that the stone was rolled away not so that Christ could get out, but so that we could get in, and see that the shroud and head-cloth were still in place, just as if the corpse which had been wrapped in them had evaporated (JN 20:8). St John’s comment is important, since he was the first, just before St Peter, to enter the empty tomb (JN 20:2) after the myrrh-bearing women had been informed by the shining angels whom they found there that ‘He is not here; He is risen!’ (LK 24:1-2).

The discovery of the shroud and head-cloth, lying in place as they were, also makes it impossible to believe the fabrication suggested by the Jewish clergy, that Jesus’ body had been removed from the tomb by His disciples while the guards were asleep, an event which surely would have involved the removal of the burial cloths (MT 28:11-15). That circumstance, plus the very odd recommendation that the soldiers admit to falling asleep on duty -- an offense usually met by the severest military penalties -- allow us to wonder not only at the resurrection itself, but also at the amazing mental contortions of people who were determined to undermine belief in the resurrection of Christ.

There is no shortage of heterodox Christian ‘theologians’ at the beginning of the twenty-first century who are just as determined to perpetrate this blasphemy as were their first-century counterparts. In modern times, it is fashionable among the heterodox not to deny the resurrection outright, but to suggest that -- true or not -- it wouldn't affect *their* faith. Not the faith of the Church, but their individual faith, as if there could be such a difference. Let us remember them in our prayers, as well as the people they lead astray, since argument, even of the scholarly sort, seems not to help.

The guards who were present at Christ’s resurrection fainted dead away; they saw nothing but the brilliant flash of divine lightning emanating from Someone they had thought dead, but they did not see Him rise (MT 28:3; Sunday Apolytikion, Mode 2).

Those good women who brought the ointment and myrrh to complete Jesus’s burial saw nothing; they were informed by the angels that Christ had risen. The women were instructed to announce this joyful news to the apostles, but they had seen nothing but the angel and the empty tomb. As wonderful as that sight was, they did not see Christ rise. This experience related in the Gospel forms the subject of the other ikon often venerated as we commemorate the resurrection of Christ. It depicts the myrrh-bearing women arriving at the empty tomb, and the angel sitting on the stone just rolled away from the doorway of the tomb. The angel points to the empty shroud and proclaims the resurrection of Christ, commissioning the women to share the news with the apostles (MT 28:2-4). A few verses after this account, we find the risen Christ meeting the holy women, and confirming the angel’s directive to ‘tell (His) brothers to go to Galilee, where they will see (Him)’ (MT 28:8-10).

In the strictest sense of the scriptural definition of ‘apostle’ (ACTS 1:22), it must be admitted that the myrrh-bearing women were the first apostles. They proclaimed the resurrection to Peter and the rest of the Twelve, who then proclaimed it to us. This is an important point in dialogue with Feminists, who assert that the Church has denied ‘rights’ to women. What could have been more important than the evangelical commission to proclaim Christ’s resurrection, except for His incarnation? And, in accordance with God’s good providence, both of these pivotal events were accomplished by women. There is very little else in the Gospels accomplished by men, other than the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, which can be compared with these two most important events in which women are the agents. The ordained priesthood, including the episcopate, is a mere shadow of these events, and Christian women can be comforted and ennobled by the realization that ‘the better part’ (LK 10:42) was chosen for them by God, and not by them for themselves. There are other good reasons for this, but they are beyond the scope of this meditation.

In addition, Christ was seen by hundreds of people after His resurrection (1 COR 15:3-11), and He continued to teach and heal and explain the scriptures of the Old Covenant as they referred to Himself (LK 24:44-45; ACTS 1:3) until He was taken up to His Father to reign at God’s right hand, from where He sends the Holy Spirit, the Advocate Who guides and enlivens the Church throughout the ages (JN 16:5-16; ACTS 1:1-8; Symbol of Faith).

While no human being witnessed the actual resurrection of Christ as it was taking place, all these scriptural personalities saw the risen Christ and experienced the effects of the resurrection in their lives. As for them, so also for us: ‘now that we have seen the resurrection of Christ, let us worship our holy Lord, Jesus, Who alone is sinless’ (Morning Service of the Resurrection).

No human being saw Christ rise, but we experience the effects of His resurrection in our own promised immortality in Christ, so we can know empirically that ‘Christ is risen from the dead, by His death trampling Death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’

Monk James is an Eastern Orthodox Church Monk

See Also:

Great and Holy Saturday Night
A look at the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy behind the Holy Saturday Night Worship Service, part of Passion Week Service.

Great and Holy Saturday Morning
A look at the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy behind the Holy Saturday Morning Worship Service, part of Passion Week Service.

Sabbath of the Gospel, Sabatho Dasbartho or Gospel Saturday
A detailed article that examines the background behind the prayer for the departed, the concept of hell and paradise, etc.

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