My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In light of the services soon to come, I wish to share a little insight into perhaps my favorite service: The Proti-Anastasi Liturgy Holy Saturday Morning. Within the Passion narrative, this service takes place as Christ descends into hell. There, he utterly annihilates the power of death and frees our first parents Adam and Eve as St. John the Baptist points out to the kings Solomon and David that this is He of whom he told that would come, the One they had always hoped to see.
Prior to this moment, all mankind (with the exception of Enoch [Gen. 5:24] and Elias [2 Kings 2:11]) went to hell when they perished, the good and the bad because all had sinned. When the Author of Life descended into hell, he freed all of those believing in him and they rose from the dead (Matthew 27:52). This changed the dynamic of our lives forever! Now, with Christ pulling us up, as he did with our ancestors, we too can be pulled from hell. Paradise has opened and we can share in the Resurrection of Christ!
As exciting as this is, this is not why this service is my favorite. Perhaps when I was a child, I simply enjoyed listening to the psaltis chant Τὸν Κύριον ὑμνεῖτε, καὶ ὑπερυψοῦτε εἰς πάντας τοὺς αἰῶνας. “Sing a hymn to the Lord, and exalt Him beyond measure, unto all the ages.” Perhaps I loved watching the priest shower the church with Bay Leaves and Flowers while singing, Ἀνάστα, ὁ Θεός, κρίνων τὴν γῆν, ὅτι σὺ κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἔθνεσι. “Arise, O God; judge the earth, for You shall inherit all the Gentiles.” But as an adult, I realized I loved the service most because of the allegorical messages embedded in the Old Testament Readings.
We read the Prophesy of Jonah (Jonah 1-4) and listen to the story of how he spent 3 days in the belly of the sea monster. This is an obvious allegory to Christ spending 3 days in the tomb., made especially clear when Jonah exclaims, “I cried out in my
affliction to the Lord, my God, And He heard my voice; Out of the belly of Hades, You heard the cry of my voice” (Jonah 2:2). Further, the Lord Himself brings our attention here when he exclaims in Mathew 12:39, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
Of Further note, during times of antiquity men and women would pray aloud, standing up with their arms in the Orans Position, as displayed to the left. Jonah would have certainly prayed in this manner from the sea monster. The body is in the shape of the Cross. So we see within Jonah our freedom from Hell and the method in which it is accomplished: The Holy Cross. “And He said to them all, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily*, and follow Me (Luke 9:23 *Alexandrian translation). The statement of daily, while not a universally accepted text within this verse, can be universally accepted as our daily struggle and salvation found within our personal crosses.
But for me, the most powerful image is that of the three Hebrew Children (Daniel 3:1-56). We see three young men robbed of everything by the foul king Nebuchadnezzar. Their beautiful names of Hananiah “Jah who is gracious,” Misha’el “Who is like God?,” and Azariah “Jah has helped” were replaced with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. If one has never seen the television series Roots, there is a terrible scene in which the protagonist Kunta Kinte, one of 98 slaves brought to Annapolis, Maryland, is whipped because he refuses to take his slave name of “Toby.” In this gut wrenching scene we see him courageously endure the whip until he finally is broken and woodenly declares, “My name … is Toby. To be robbed of one’s name is to be robbed of one’s identity. Yet these unbelievably faithful youths never wavered in their determination to worship the one True God. As they were thrown into the fire that killed even those heating it, the three dance with the Wondrous Angel (Jesus Christ) and were not harmed.
This brings to mind the story of Malachi 3:3 “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” There is a popular story of a Bible Study surrounding this verse:
There was a group of women in a Bible study on the book of Malachi. As they were studying chapter three they came across verse three. This verse puzzled the women and they wondered what this statement meant about the character and nature of God.
One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest in silver beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that, in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities.
The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot – then she thought again about the verse, that He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. For if the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.
The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s the easy part — when I see my image reflected in it.”
The thought of bearing our Cross daily or being placed within Fire can seem very daunting, terrifying. But we, THANK GOD!, do not have to do this alone. We have a God who loves us enough to help us carry our Cross (whatever it may be), and who will not let us be destroyed in the fire. God will not give us more than we can handle. More, that heat is not endured alone and it is not without purpose. If we give it to God, we will become more and more like Him. We will eventually take on the qualities of that purifying fire (The Holy Spirit) and we will dance in the fire like the Hebrew Children.
This service, more than the Little or First Resurrection, gives me hope for the present and future in how I, together with Christ, can experience His joy and victory. It is in this service that we see the power of Hell crushed. It is here we see Death vanquished. It is within this service that we recognize the power of Christ to free us from death (hades/the belly of the monster) and suffering (the terrible fire). Both have been transfigured. Death has become Life and the Fire of destruction has become the Fire of the Holy Spirit. Let us come together like Jonah and the Three Youths Hananiah, Misha’el, and Azariah in joy as we are delivered from whatever afflicts us. Let us, as a family, chant triumphantly the Doxastikon of the Orthros of Pascha: It is the day of the Resurrection. Let us shine brightly for the festival, and also embrace one another. Brethren, let us say even to those who hate us, “Let us forgive everything for the Resurrection.” And thus let us cry aloud, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs He has granted life.”
I remain your servant in Christ,
Fr. Dimitri Tobias, Proistamenos