It has been a wonderful Holy Week here at Saint George’s. The general attendance was much better this year than it has been in the last several years that I have been here. It was only on Monday and Tuesday evening that we had less than 100 people present (86 and 38 respectively). By the time we came to Holy Wednesday we were pretty well full every night from that point on with no fewer than 150 or so. The Vesperal Liturgy on Saturday morning was lovely (and again, quite full).
I served every morning at Saint Nicholas Church from Monday through Thursday in addition to all of the services at Saint George. I'm pooped and I find that I'm getting a little older every year. Imagine!
One might be tempted to say that “it’s finally over!” But what a loss that would be. Yes, the fast is over. Yes, the intensity of the Lenten Services and Holy Week is over. But, in reality, we have now finally come to the beginning. Now it starts! Now everything is new! Now this dying world comes face to face with Life himself, risen from the tomb!
This is what all of our preparation has been about: the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. This is why we sing the Paschal troparion before and at the end of every service and blessing throughout Paschaltide: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” The words are powerful and touch the deepest part of our existence. They reach the core of our nightmares.
The hymn begins in the tomb, the graveyard. Graveyards have come to been seen as spooky and dark places in our modern culture. They are the stuff of horror movies, all dark and foreboding. But surely this is not the historic understanding of a Christian graveyard. Burial practices are tremendously interesting.
In many places in the Middle East (so I'm told by a former parishioner who came from the Damascus area) and in Greece the places for burial are very small. The faithful are usually buried within the day of death and are unembalmed. It is a very common custom to bury the departed in the grave for very brief time (perhaps only six months to two years) until they have lost their flesh. The bones are then uncovered and placed carefully and reverently in ossuaries. The skulls are often labeled with the person’s name. All of the skulls are placed together, all of the ribs, the femurs, and so forth. There is deep love and reverence for the departed’s remains. It is also interesting to note that this is one of the reason that the incorrupted remains of the faithful have been found in those parts of the world. One wonders how many have we never found due to our practice of embalming and burial customs?
In the country of my ancestors, the graves are dug in the lawn around the parish church. To get into the church, one walks through the cemetery. It is well known that there was in Medieval England a very strong notion of death. Figures of skulls and skeletons can be seen in carvings inside the church. The black death scarred the soul and psyche of the English (and all the world) in ways that we can scarcely grasp.
One of the most interesting scenes that was commonly painted on the walls was called the story of the three Princes. It usually featured three young, handsome princes on a hunting party. In the woods they come upon three corpses in varying degrees of decomposition. Scrolls come from the mouths of the departed to bring the punch to the scene. The first says, "What ye are now, we once were.” The second said, “What we are now, ye shall become.” Pretty sobering thought. There is a long tradition of the remembrance of our death as being necessary for our salvation. Without knowing that we shall only have a brief time of this earth to set our souls for eternity, we should probably never repent and live a righteous and holy life.
But this is not the sense of the “church yard,” as those cemeteries are called. Church yards were places of respect, solemnity and a secret joy. Joy? Absolutely! This is a common Christian notion that has been understood by the Orthodox since the beginning. In Russia, the custom on Pascha (Easter) is to go to the cemeteries, light candles at the graves of their ancestors and have a family feast! Christian cemeteries are not dark places, but they are places of anticipation. They are places that, if we could see them with the eyes of faith, are beginning to shine forth with the light of Christ even now. Isn’t it interesting that it was not until the “Age of Enlightenment” that cemeteries became the places of trepidation? Perhaps, secular “enlightenment” or scientific knowledge (vs. the Church’s “illumination”) knows that the grave remains unanswered and undefeated in their lives.
Christ’s resurrection has ended that ancient triad of sin, evil and death. Death has been annihilated! The grave has been mocked! We now go into the graves as those who are united to Life himself. We are joined to Life and so we enter the grave “making our funeral dirge the song, alleluia, alleluia alleluia!” (from our funeral service)
This does not negate the necessity of us continuing to repent our sins throughout our life, for if we sin, we voluntarily join ourselves to death again. If we sin, we brake the love of Christ and lose Life inside our veins. We need to be realistic, because the moral and ascetical struggle are absolutely essential in this life lest we die and are raised unto “the resurrection of condemnation.” The three Princes stand out clearly here… and they should.
Yet we need to know that because of the Resurrection, Light has dawned and dispelled the darkness which once reigned. Now, because the Lord is Risen, we have the power of Light and Life. We are raised with him, because we are joined to him in our baptisms. Our failures and falls do not necessarily lead to death. The necessity is ended. We now have the possibility of repentance and life. We can now experience forgiveness and restoration.
Now it begins! Now we can find hope, even when there seems to be none around the corner. It is no surprise that I am gravely concerned and worried about the state of our current politics and financial lives in the US, but it is not to the degree of being depressed or desperate. And the reason is that Christ is Risen, and Life truly reigns! Let us all then celebrate the Feast of feasts, and Season of seasons, the Resurrection of Christ for the full forty days of the season. Don’t lose that joy because it has defeated this world and death.