Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Saturday - The Encounter with Death

by Fr Steven C, Kostoff, Orthodox Christian Meditations
Originally published May 8, 2013

I would like to share a particularly insightful passage from the writings of Fr. Alexander Schmemann from his over-all analysis of the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday (always served on Friday evening “in anticipation”).  This is one of the longest services of Holy Week, attended by many, and highlighted by our common vigil around the tomb of the crucified and buried Lord, and culminating in a procession that takes us outside and around the church. 

This procession with the Epitaphion (burial shroud) – actualizing the passage of Christ through the darkness of death and Hades – proclaims that nevertheless, Christ is the Holy Immortal One that death and Hades cannot hold in their respective grips.  There occurs here what Fr. Alexander calls “the encounter with death.”  And it is because of death that Fr. Alexander claims “the entire universe has become a cosmic cemetery … condemned to death and destruction.”  

Thus, this encounter between the Son of God and death has a truly cosmic and timeless meaning imparted to it. The “hour” of the Son of God has now arrived, and this “hour” is that of His death, actualized, commemorated and and made present through the liturgical services of the Church.

It is here that Fr. Schmemann has a wonderful paragraph that beautifully explains what happens when death must encounter the voluntary death of Christ:

“Now this hour has come and the Son of God enters into Death.  The Fathers usually describe this moment as a duel between Christ and Death, Christ and Satan.  For this death was to be either the last triumph of Satan, or his decisive defeat.  The duel develops in several stages.  At first, the forces of evil seem to triumph.  The Righteous One is crucified, abandoned by all, and endures a shameful death.  He also becomes the partaker of “Hades,” of this place of darkness and despair … but at this very moment, the real meaning of this death is revealed.  The One who dies on the Cross has Life in Himself, i.e., He has life not as a gift from outside, a gift which  therefore can be taken away from Him, but as His own essence.  For He is the Life and the Source of all life.  “In Him was Life and the Life was the light of man” (JN 1:4).  The man Jesus dies, but this Man is the Son of God.  As man, He can really die, but in Him, God Himself enters the realm of death, partakes of death. This is the unique, the incomparable meaning of Christ’s death.  In it, the man who dies is God, or to be more exact, the God-Man.  God is the Holy Immortal; and only in the unity “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” of God and Man in Christ can human death be “assumed” by God and be overcome and destroyed from within, be “trampled down by death.”

This is the ultimate expression of the Church’s “Death of God” theology.  In the Person of the Son of God incarnate, God experiences death from within.  For the Son of God dies in the human nature that He has made His own once and for all.  This is more properly called the theopaschite formula; again, meaning that we can ascribe death to God – not in His divine nature for that nature remains eternally impassible - but in His human nature that suffers passion on our behalf.  There is therefore no human experience that Christ does not experience on our behalf – and that includes death itself.  Thus, in the “praises” we chant in front of the tomb of the Savior, we proclaim our faith in His life-giving death:

O Life, how canst Thou die?
How can Thou dwell in a tomb?
Yet by Thy death Thou hast destroyed
   the reign of death,
and raised all the dead from hell.

In a tomb they laid Thee,
O Christ the Life.
By Thy death Thou hast cast down the
  might of death
and become the font of life for all the world.

Holy Saturday is thus the “Blessed Sabbath” that “great Moses mystically foreshadowed” [as we sing in the great hymn on this day].  The Son of God “rests” in the tomb on this Sabbath, having completed His work of re-creation by dying and reigning on and from the Tree of Life – the wood of the Cross.  That is why Holy Saturday is imbued with a sense of profound expectation, in that we already know that the Lord will arise again, death having no dominion over Him.  Holy Saturday is the day of transition and transformation - from the Cross to the Empty Tomb.