In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul as God, in paradise with the thief and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast Thou O Christ, filling all things with Thyself. Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise, brighter than any royal chamber: Your tomb, O Christ, is the fountain of our resurrection.
–Priest’s words at the Great Entrance during the Divine Liturgy
Since Pascha is the Feast of all Feasts, it is easy to miss all of the rich liturgical portions offered by Mother Church directly before the Easter extravaganza and directly afterwards. For me, especially dear is the service which acts as a kind of proto-Pascha, the Vesperal Liturgy usually chanted on the morning of Great & Holy Saturday, a service similar in content and purpose to what in the West is called the Easter Vigil.
I am almost always blessed to lead this service at our parish as I am again this year, and it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly overwhelmed and downright giddy we all feel at the first real whiff of the resurrection. The service starts with 13 Old Testament readings centered around the theme of God’s everlasting provision for His people, even in the times of deepest distress. And then, all of the sudden, while we are deep in the throes of Old Testament woes, the reader intones the Great Prokeimenon that commands God’s victory and judgement over sin and death, Arise, O God. Just as suddenly, the clergy who have been dressed in dark purple and sometimes black vestments, burst (and I mean burst) from behind the iconostasis throwing out sweet-smelling basil and other spices, “to greet the tomb of the Lord, yet dawning.”
Last year I was able to attend the Western Easter Vigil at a nearby Anglican monastery. I was very moved there as well by the spontaneous Paschal joy exhibited, especially at the moment of the first Alleluia and the vigorous bell ringing accompanying Christ the Lord is Risen Today. I have yet to visit the whole two hour plus service (only able to format it into a church bulletin in the parish where I work), but when I do, I suspect it will have that same element of surprise as our own Holy Saturday Liturgy.
Besides the element of surprise and spontaneity, Saturday’s Liturgy or Easter Vigil also sounds a note of profound exegetical depth. The hymn Moses the Great found at the Doxasticon of Vespers, provides a microcosm of the historical, eternal and mystical bounds to which the Lord of Glory extends his reach for the salvation of all humankind; it speaks of the profound meaning behind His burial, descent into Hades, and ultimate harrowing of hell.
Moses the Great mystically prefigured this present day saying,
“And God blessed the seventh day.”
For this is the blessed Sabbath; this is the day of rest.
So far the hymn reminds us of what we already know about the Sabbath. The next lines comment on the prefigurement of the present burial of Christ and how it is a recapitulation or type of the ancient, ordained practice of Sabbath keeping:
On which the Only-begotten Son of God
Rested from all His works.
Suffering death in accordance with the plan of salvation
He kept the Sabbath in the flesh.
Which works? Both the present work of suffering on the cross and the ancient work of creation are evoked. Notice that his rest is still very active. Far from the American concept of relaxation which ends up being nothing more than a relaxed state of decomposition, His rest brings on the fireworks of the hymn:
And returning once again to what He was
Through His resurrection, he has granted us eternal life
For He alone is good and the Lover of Mankind.
Holy Saturday is a reminder that Christ shattered the gates of death. He did not merely evolve gradually into some higher consciousness. The soldiers keeping watch at thy sepulchre, O Savior became as dead for fear of the angel’s appearing as lightning and proclaiming onto the women that thou didst arise (sessional hymn of the canon for Holy Saturday). The immediacy, suddenness, and almighty power of Christ’s resurrection gives us hope that He can help us overcome our own lingering addictions and attachments to this world and the grave. May He who rose from the dead, Christ our True God, enable us on earth to glorify Him with purity of heart.