The Good Friday burial procession

The first Eastern Orthodox service I have ever attended occurs again tonight. On the evening of Good Friday, we commemorate the burial of Jesus’ body (we commemorate the crucifixion itself earlier in the day). The service includes hymns about the crucifixion, and burial of Jesus, and about Joseph of Arimathea, the man who claimed Jesus’ body from Pilate and whose tomb Jesus is buried in.

The highlight of the service is the procession around the church, we carry a bier, a flowery arrangement which is meant to represent Jesus’ body or coffin.

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I would describe the procession as “hauntingly beautiful”. The bier is at the head, with the choir and the rest of the congregation trailing behind. During the procession, we sing the Trisagion, one of the most commonly used prayers in the Orthodox liturgy. It simply goes,

Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal have mercy on us!

This prayer is sang at almost every Orthodox service, but usually set to upbeat music. For the funeral procession, we switch to singing these words in slow, sad music. Listen to it here!

I like that this procession makes us feel like we are mourning the death of Jesus with his first followers. Orthodox Christians believe that it is not possible to know God merely through intellectual understanding, but rather that divine revelation includes the participatory and experiential as well.

Thus our Good Friday does not just include theology of the crucifixion and of atonement (although there is a great deal of that in the services too).  It also places us with the first Christians on the day of Jesus’ burial, and we get to feel a bit of that sadness, anxiety and longing they must have felt, as the executioner’s cross ended the man we hoped would heal our infirmities, rescue us from bondage, relieve our pains.

But as we mourn with these earliest believers, we also get to hope with them. Did he not promise that he would return from the dead after three days? And as the sad, slow Trisagion rings out in the crowd,  I can’t help but wonder what an odd thing it is to sing “Holy Immortal” in a funeral.

 

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Christ the Bridegroom

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For most of Holy Week, Orthodox churches display this particular icon of Jesus Christ, known as “The Bridegroom”. The name is taken from the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

My copy of the icon came with an insert that contained a brief explanation of the icon.

As a husband is to his wife so is Jesus Christ to His Church. His Crucifixion is His marital vow and His mockery and beating His wedding feast. The Bridegroom icon shows Christ stripped of His garments and clothed in a scarlet robe to mock Him. He wears a crown of thorns, causing blood to flow from the wounds. A reed is placed in His bound hands as a scepter.

In Christ’s halo are the Greek letters for “I AM,” to remind us that Christ is the All-Powerful God who freely chose to experience pain and death. For the first three days of Holy Week this icon is placed prominently in the Church to remind us of Christ’s great love and great suffering.

This is one of my favorite depictions of Christ. I purchased my copy of this icon immediately after my first Orthodox Holy Week service. The church had a very large copy, close to a meter tall, and it made a very strong impression.

I was struck by this beautiful, sad, juxtaposition of joy and pain. The allusion to marriage is a strong one, and a significant part of this icon’s emotional power. Here is a picture of the crowns worn by the bride and groom in a Greek wedding. Note the similarity to Christ’s crown of thorns:

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This icon’s reference to the parable of the ten virgins is a warning against complacency. We have to prepare ourselves to follow Christ, to love and sacrifice as He did. To neglect this preparation leads to our destruction.

Thus in our Lenten journey, in our marriages, and in our Christian lives, we have to learn to be patient, to set aside our wants and desires, and to suffer deeply for the sake of those we love. What a perfect message to close out the Lenten season!

 

 

 

Reading Dostoyevsky on Lazarus Saturday

The Saturday that falls on the week before Easter is dedicated to Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. The account of this miracle is found in John 11.

The commemoration of this miracle occupies such a prominent place in the Lent calendar because of the Orthodox church’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection. We do not believe, as some do, that the soul leaves to an ephemeral existence in the sky. Rather the sick, decaying, dead parts of both our physical and spiritual selves will be renewed and redeemed in the last days. The end of the Christian story is not an escape from a physical world that is doomed to destruction, but rather its restoration, as all the broken things of this planet are made right in the victorious coming of the Kingdom of God.

The story of Lazarus thus serves both as a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection, and a promise that we also will be resurrected with Him.

The story of Lazarus occurs prominently in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In particular, Lazarus is central in a powerful, beautiful scene near the end of the book, when everything is falling apart. The doomed murderer asks the despised prostitute to read the story of Lazarus, and an entire chapter contains just that: she reads the whole of John 11, as he begs and urges her on, overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and desperation. And from her tattered Bible she reads it, haltingly at first, but gradually gaining in conviction. And in this, one of the grimmest works in literature, a shining beacon of hope.

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The simplicity of that chapter in Crime and Punishment is rather remarkable. Large portions of it are just lifted directly from John 11. For most of the way through the chapter, you are reading a book about Sonia reading a book. But the power of the Lazarus story is such that this scene did not need any elaboration.

Lazarus means that the resurrection of Christ is not an isolated event. We all will be resurrected with him. Therefore we need not live as if our possessions and comfort in this life are the only things that matter. Even if we lose them all, up to the point of losing life and limb, we know that all that we have lost will be restored to us. This gives us the freedom to choose to do the right thing, even when it is costly- as the murderer has to do at the end of Crime and Punishment, in response to that reading of the Lazarus story.

The miracle in Bethany  overturned the tragedy of Lazarus’ death. Sonia’s reading of John 11 gave hope to the tragedy of Rodya’s self-destruction. Lazarus promises hope also to our tragedies. The Christian promise is not an escape from tragedy, but a victory over it.