Tomorrow morning begins with the service of the Royal Hours. As we approach the hour of our Lord’s Crucifixion, we are asked to reflect on the full horror of what He endured on the Cross, for this was not some abstract historical event unrelated to our present lives but an event that each of us is intimately connected with. As the Lord prepared for what He knew was to come, He did not just take upon Himself the sins of the people who were alive while He Himself walked the earth, or the sins of those who had lived up until that time. The Crucifixion was not a ‘one-time’ event in the way we perceive time. He who transcends time took upon Himself the sins of all of us, for all time, meaning that He took upon Himself your sins and mine – the sins we have committed in the past and the sins we will commit in the future. Had He not done so, there would be no prospect of resurrection for any of us who are alive today. We would simply die to sin. We human beings clean up after we have made a mess. In His great act of atonement, the Lord cleansed all those who would seek His forgiveness – even those who were yet to be born!
Therefore, we do not say idly that the Lord suffers for our sins. Each of our sins contributes to His suffering on the Cross. Those of us who claim to know Christ must strive to be ever vigilant of this fact. When we knowingly sin despite being aware of the suffering it causes our Lord, we do indeed betray Him. Yet He still offers us His mercy nonetheless, if we repent and ask Him to forgive us.
Our grief brought about by the knowledge of our role in His suffering and death is also tempered, however, by the knowledge that His three-day work (the Dismissal of Pascha) was then only just beginning. After the Cross came His burial, and after His burial came His victory over death through the Resurrection. He was victorious because death had no claim to Him. Death can only lay claim to sin and Christ was without sin. When we repent and ask for His mercy, He cleanses us of all our sin and then death can have no claim upon us either! Let us, therefore, be moved to repentance and let us be inspired by our Lord’s divine love so that we too may be granted eternal life.
Later on we serve the Vespers of the Deposition – the taking down of Christ from the Cross. The figure of Christ is removed from the crucifix that has stood in the centre of the church since the Passion of our Lord, is wrapped in cloth, and is placed in the Sanctuary where it will remain until the Feast of the Ascension. Then the epitaphios – an embroidered icon of our Lord – is carried to a specially decorated altar representing the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Christ was laid to rest.
We have now begun our preparation for the new and Great and Holy Sabbath. On the very first Sabbath (Gen. 2:2), God took rest following the six days of creation. On this fulfilment of the Sabbath, God rests after the three years of His earthly ministry.
From the sorrow of Great Friday, the service of the Deposition leads us toward the penthos – that is, ‘joyful sorrow’ – of Great and Holy Saturday, during which time we will contemplate the mystery of “Life in the tomb” and celebrate the beginning of our Lord’s assault upon the gates of Hades.
Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in.(Psalm 23)
Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war.
Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in.
Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory.
The Matins service of Great and Holy Saturday (the Service of the epitaphios on Great Friday evening) is a funeral service and, yet, it is a celebration, because Great Friday evening is when the sorrow of the Cross is transformed into the joy of the Resurrection. We sing the Lamentations and, yet, we become joyful. We take our joy out into the streets with the procession of the epitaphios. We mourn Christ’s death, but we celebrate His transformation of death into new life. For the Orthodox, the departing of those who have fallen asleep is not to be a cause of sorrow but of hope, and we owe this to our Lord. There is nothing we need fear if we stand with Christ, not even death. Fear is of the enemy and should have no place in our lives, no matter what we are faced with. We should all try to remember this, perhaps now more than ever.
The Lord is my light and my saviour; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?(Psalm 26)