Tag Archives: Holy Saturday

Struggling and singing and floating to Pascha.

CHRIST IS RISEN!

It is the theme of the week, “Bright Week” for us Orthodox Christians who struggled and floated through Holy Week while practically living at church. In the ten days starting with Lazarus Saturday and rolling us along through Bright Monday, we had 19 unique services at my parish, including several that were 2-3 hours long. No one participates in all of them, but some people come very close.

Because of frequent changes in the last year as to who can and may sing and chant at which of our services, it fell out that during this Lent and especially Holy Week I had more chanting duties than ever, and all of that reading of Psalms and other prayers contributed to my joy — and fatigue! What time I wasn’t in church in the last twelve days, I gravitated to my bed, or accomplished minimal garden duties.

The service of Matins of Holy Friday, on Thursday evening, is a highlight of the week. Twelve separate Gospel passages are read, seemingly everything written about Christ’s passion. We stand holding candles, and most people sit down after each of the twelve readings for the prayers and hymns that set apart the Gospel passages. The first reading is more than four chapters long: John 13:31 – 18:1. Every year is a little different for me — I’m sure it’s like that for everyone — but whether you are distracted a lot or hardly at all, there is a blessing in just being there in body, and in hearing so many words of Good News, Christ’s willing self-sacrifice for us.

By Friday afternoon we have had three services by which to enter in to the Crucifixion. On Friday evening the services of Holy Saturday begin; Saturday afternoon is the radiant commemoration of Christ’s descent into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant, and His victory over death. The choir leads us in singing “Arise O God; Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations,” while all over the church people switch out the purple cloths for white.  The Old Testament story of Jonah three days in the belly of the whale is read at this service, because Jonah is seen in the Church as a type of Christ Who was three days in the tomb. It’s just one of fifteen Old Testament readings that are interspersed with two long and exultant hymns.

Afterward we go home to rest and eat a little, before returning a few hours later for the culmination of Great Lent and Holy Week, the celebration of the Holy and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Parishioners have been taking turns reading the Acts of the Apostles continuously since the end of the afternoon service, and do so right up until the beginning of the Pascha services just before midnight. Then all the lights in the church are turned off, and at midnight:

The Light of Christ’s Resurrection “breaks through” when the priest takes the vigil light from the altar and gives it to the faithful, while singing: “Come receive the light, that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead.”

From there the people process out of the church building, where the Gospel account of the empty tomb is read; verses from Psalm 68 are sung — “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!”; and the famous Paschal hymn is joyously chanted by all: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs He has granted life.” In this way the Church announces to the entire world the glorious news of the Resurrection. The Festal Midnight Liturgy of Easter is celebrated and the faithful partake of the Eucharist in the “Light of the Resurrection.”

The spiritual striving of the Lenten season and the blessed travel through Holy Week has been accomplished, and thus the Joy of the Resurrection is inexplicably palpable for all who have participated in this grace-filled journey.

We missed so much of this experience last year! It doesn’t break neatly into parts, a couple of which can be torn out of the whole and doled out over the Internet on a screen. But our deprivations made us all the more jubilant and grateful this year for our traditional over-the-top way of celebrating. The Death of Death is surely a reality we want to know in our hearts and lives. Somehow all of these Lenten and Holy Week labors empty us and humble us in mysterious ways to make us able to receive the grace of divine Life that is poured out at Pascha.

I stayed to break the fast with a few others afterward, with cheeses and meat, wine and chocolate, and didn’t get home until 4:00 a.m. Then we were back for Paschal Vespers at 1:00 — such a bright service! We couldn’t have our usual big barbecue this year but a few families stayed to picnic and visit all afternoon, and their children had an egg hunt.

Our bishop was with us on Bright Monday for Divine Liturgy, plus friends and deacons from a “sister parish” nearby. It was interesting how I began that hour of worship with so much verve, but about fifteen minutes in felt the weight of the residual exhaustion pulling me into a chair, where I tried to keep my mind awake, please God, for just a few more minutes!

At the end of Bright Monday’s service several of our men singers treated us, in English, to this Georgian Paschal hymn that has become one of my favorites. It must be getting more popular among the Orthodox worldwide, if the number of YouTube videos compared to last year is any indication. I found so many good versions, from cathedral to country folk to quarantine virtual choir, I am going to share several with you, in English and in Georgian.

Georgian Hymn in English – Virtual Choir

Kriste Aghdga – family in country

Kriste Aghdga – in English and Georgian

Kriste Aghdga – in a cathedral in Georgia

IN TRUTH HE IS RISEN!

Not one atheist has plunged.

Below are encouraging words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, prefaced by a few of my own Holy Saturday thoughts from six years ago, when I was freshly bereaved of my husband. I will leave that mercifully dated personal context as is, though it is for the more enduring words of Metropolitan Anthony that I am re-posting:

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I find myself in a phase of grief where from time to time during the day I feel acutely lost without my husband, the absence of him like a soreness in my spirit, an ache in the middle of my chest telling me that something is very wrong with me. Yes, something is wrong!! It’s death that is wrong – it’s wrong for us to be separated, for me to lose the heart of my heart. I have known this truth in my mind and for the world generally – now I understand it in my bones.

Crucifixion wikimediaBut as I’ve said here more than once already, I have the peaceful assurance that we are not absolutely separated, and a huge thankfulness as well that neither of us has been cut off from the Source of our life and existence. Sometimes we humans use the figure of speech that we will “die of grief,” because it feels that wrenching. But I know even as I am feeling it and railing against it, that I will live through it. This is all because Christ suffered for us, and he overcame death. My pain is like a pinprick compared to what Christ endured on our behalf. As for my husband, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

These words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I first read in God and Man two years ago are even more meaningful to me on this Holy Saturday:

When in the Apostles’ Creed we repeat “And he descended into Hell,” we very often think “That’s one of those expressions,” and we think of Dante and of the place where all those poor people are being tortured with such inventiveness by God.

But the Hell of the Old Testament has nothing to do with the spectacular hell of Christian literature. The Hell of the Old Testament is something infinitely more horrid; it is the place where God is not. It is the place of final dereliction; it’s the place where you continue to exist and there is no life left.

Harrowing-Dionisius

And when we say that he descended into Hell, we mean that having accepted the loss of God, to be one of us in the only major tragedy of that kind, he accepted also the consequences and goes to the place where God is not, to the place of final dereliction; and there, as ancient hymns put it, the Gates of Hell open to receive Him who was unconquered on earth and who now is conquered, a prisoner, and they receive this man who has accepted death in an immortal humanity, and Godlessness without sin, and they are confronted with the divine presence because he is both man and God, and Hell is destroyed — there is no place left where God is not.

The old prophetic song is fulfilled, “Where shall I flee from thy face — in Heaven is thy throne, in Hell (understand in Hebrew — the place where you are not), you are also.” This is the measure of Christ’s solidarity with us, of his readiness to identify himself, not only with our misery but with our godlessness. If you think of that, you will realise that there is not one atheist on earth who has ever plunged into the depths of godlessness that the Son of God, become the Son of Man, has done. He is the only one who knows what it means to be without God and to die of it.

— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

To be without God and to die of it.

I find myself in a phase of grief where from time to time during the day I feel acutely lost without my husband, the absence of him like a soreness in my spirit, an ache in the middle of my chest telling me that something is very wrong with me. Yes, something is wrong!! It’s death that is wrong – it’s wrong for us to be separated, for me to lose the heart of my heart. I have known this truth in my mind and for the world generally – now I understand it in my bones.

Crucifixion wikimediaBut as I’ve said here more than once already, I have the peaceful assurance that we are not absolutely separated, and a huge thankfulness as well that neither of us has been cut off from the Source of our life and existence. Sometimes we humans use the figure of speech that we will “die of grief,” because it feels that wrenching. But I know even as I am feeling it and railing against it, that I will live through it. This is all because Christ suffered for us, and he overcame death. My pain is like a pinprick compared to what Christ endured on our behalf. As  for my husband, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

These words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I first read in God and Man two years ago are even more meaningful to me on this Holy Saturday:

When in the Apostles’ Creed we repeat “And he descended into Hell,” we very often think “That’s one of those expressions,” and we think of Dante and of the place where all those poor people are being tortured with such inventiveness by God.

But the Hell of the Old Testament has nothing to do with the spectacular hell of Christian literature. The Hell of the Old Testament is something infinitely more horrid; it is the place where God is not. It is the place of final dereliction; it’s the place where you continue to exist and there is no life left.

Harrowing-Dionisius

And when we say that he descended into Hell, we mean that having accepted the loss of God, to be one of us in the only major tragedy of that kind, he accepted also the consequences and goes to the place where God is not, to the place of final dereliction; and there, as ancient hymns put it, the Gates of Hell open to receive Him who was unconquered on earth and who now is conquered, a prisoner, and they receive this man who has accepted death in an immortal humanity, and Godlessness without sin, and they are confronted with the divine presence because he is both man and God, and Hell is destroyed — there is no place left where God is not.

The old prophetic song is fulfilled, “Where shall I flee from thy face — in Heaven is thy throne, in Hell (understand in Hebrew — the place where you are not), you are also.” This is the measure of Christ’s solidarity with us, of his readiness to identify himself, not only with our misery but with our godlessness. If you think of that, you will realise that there is not one atheist on earth who has ever plunged into the depths of godlessness that the Son of God, become the Son of Man, has done. He is the only one who knows what it means to be without God and to die of it.

— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Who lives and was dead

Today was full of the Lord! The first thing I did on rising was go to church and take a turn reading Psalms by candlelight next to the “tomb” of Christ that had been erected on Friday and bedecked with Easter lilies. It is a special icon representing our Lord lying in the grave, and from the end of Friday night’s service the Psalms are read continuously until the next service, which was at 1:00 today.

The Orthodox also read Psalms all night by the casket of any church member at death. And if one is all alone in the church in the near dark — well, one is not alone, because God is there always, and not only He, but the saints who live and form that great Cloud of Witnesses, who are praying with us. It’s a very intimate and loving hour, and a blessed opportunity to participate in such a work.

In the middle of the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday we had baptisms. Once again we are at the anniversary of my own baptism on this day, four years ago now, and that adds to the gravity and joy of standing with those who are being newly illumined. During Lent the catechumens have been preparing for Holy Baptism, and the rest of the church pray extra on their behalf, and in our hearts and in repentance rededicate ourselves, remembering our own illumination.

Today there were six people baptized, praise God! Two couples, each with a very young boy-child, and they used our new sunken baptismal font that is just outside the church, filled with 90° water, which I’m sure made it easier for the little guys to suffer being immersed. The skies were dry, which made watching easier for all of us. In spite of the momentary displeasure and crying of the babies, everyone was beaming with smiles and songs.

Also during the service today we heard 15 Old Testament readings that have been familiar to me most of my life, but they are becoming even more beloved every year, as we hear passages as long as the whole book of Jonah and as short as the couple of paragraphs from Jeremiah that it has been my lot to chant three years in a row now. When Tom started reading the account of Abraham taking Isaac to the mountain to make a sacrifice, I realized that I have heard him read it every year, and from now on will never be able to read that moving story without hearing his voice.

We change all the altar cloths from purple to white in the middle of this service as well, two or three people nearby stepping up to do the quick work at the same time as men are lighting the chandelier and the choir is singing. Of course the choir is singing! There is rarely a quiet time during our services, filled as they are with prayers, Scripture, and hymns.

Mr. Glad went with me on Thursday evening for the Matins of Holy Friday, during which 12 Gospel passages are read, including the whole of several chapters of John, by the clergy in the center of the church. It’s a kind of total immersion in the events of Christ’s Passion, and requires three hours to get the full effect — but you get it.

Last night was Matins and Lamentations for Holy Saturday. The Lamentations consist of the whole chapter of Psalm 119, its verses interspersed with poetic verses pertaining directly to the Passion of Christ. But I didn’t go to that. I’m too old to stay up past my bedtime several nights in a row, and I wanted to be sure to make it tonight.

At my baptism, anointing with Holy Chrism

Tonight about midnight we will process around the church with candles — and maybe in the drizzle, if the weather doesn’t change quickly. Once we are back inside, a large portion of the first chapter of John will be read, often in more than one language. We will begin the happy shouts and songs of “Christ is risen!” and hymns that are the most rousing of the whole church year.

The priests and deacons will make the rounds among the people innumerable times with censing and with recitations of “Christ is risen!” and “In truth He is risen!” in many different languages in turn. Sometimes I see a cheat sheet floating around that shows these phrases, but I’m always a little too scattered to make up for my lack of preparedness right then. It’s very chummy, because we get a lot of visitors or once-a-year-ers and we fill the house. One has to pay attention to the candles to be sure that they don’t catch someone’s hair or long white scarf on fire.

Many children fall asleep on the floor as the festivities continue. The day of my baptism I was so thoroughly done-in that I couldn’t help looking again and again at the sleeping children and wishing that I were a child so that I could conk out, too. Perhaps I was being obvious; eventually a man offered me his chair, and with sleeping babe in arms moved to sit on the floor.

Of course, the highlight of the service is receiving the Holy Mysteries of Communion. When we have broken our Lenten fast with that heavenly food, and are giddy with fatigue, many of us go into the hall to share rich earthly treats that we’ve been doing without for many weeks. I’m not sure I will want to do that this year; I might need to come home and treat myself with sleep. We have a picnic Sunday afternoon with meat and everything one could want, when we are more rested.

So that’s where I’m going after I finish writing this and don my festal garments. I wanted to post at least something in commemoration of this pivotal point in history, and in our salvation history, and then I got carried away. What I first thought to share are these lines that Fr. L read to us instead of a homily this afternoon, words of the risen Christ that I hope will keep echoing in my heart.

I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.