In the last reflection, we discussed how the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday morning is like a summary of the history of salvation. In that reflection we showed how the Old Testament is summarized in the service. This reflection will show how the service summarizes not only the New Testament, but life today and eternal life.
It’s amazing how careful the writers of this service were to incorporate intentional and meaningful Scripture passages. Following the three prophecies which we discussed previously, the Divine Liturgy part of the service commences with the singing of the hymn “As many of you as were baptized in Christ, you have put on Christ. Alleluia.” (Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas) This hymn is a direct quote from Galatians 3:27 where we read “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This beautiful hymn is chanted at every baptism service to celebrate the new life in Christ for the person who has been baptized. In this instance, we sing this to celebrate the renewed life for all of us who have been baptized, as we prepare to begin everything anew in the light of the Resurrected Christ. All of us entered into the Body of Christ through baptism. Sin causes us to fall away to some degree. The Holy Week journey is designed, in part, to help us get back to the state we were in at baptism, through prayer, hymn, Scripture, and Sacraments of Holy Unction and Holy Communion.
The Epistle lesson is the same one that we read at baptisms, from Romans 6: 3-11. In this passage, we read that “we were buried therefore with Him by baptism into His death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” (v. 4) and “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.” (v. 8)
Following the Epistle lesson, before proceeding to the Gospel as is the order at the Divine Liturgy, the priest sings a beautiful hymn “Arise, O God” (Anasta o Theos, in Greek) and begins to scatter bay leaves around the church. In the Ancient Olympics, the bay (or laurel) leaves were the sign of victory. In the Ancient Olympics, they didn’t give medals for winners. Instead they put laurel leaves around the heads of the winners. The leaves are scattered around the church as a sign of Christ’s victory over death. In Holy Week, where we change colors and scenes (icons, the crucifix, the tomb of Christ), the scattering of the leaves is first tangible sign that the celebration of the Resurrection is impending. The hymn is sung many times, and in between, the priest will intone verses of Psalm 82, which are quoted below.
After the hymn has been sung many times and the church has been covered with leaves, the Divine Liturgy continues with the reading of the Gospel. The entire 20th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is read. It begins with the account of the Resurrection, with the angel appearing to two women who had come to the tomb and found the stone rolled away. The women are instructed to go tell the disciples that Jesus has risen. Saint Matthew is the only Evangelist who mentions the bribing of the guards by the chief priests, who instructed them to make up a false story that the Body of Jesus was stolen in the night.
The last few verses of the Gospel lesson are the Great Commission, which is also the Gospel that is read at every baptism. This baptism commissions all Christians, just as the original Apostles were, to go and make disciples of all nations. In other words, with the salvific work of Christ now complete and the path to Paradise open once again, it is important to spread this good news to all nations and bring Christ to all people. This is the work of the church.
Christians, as well as the church, are sustained through partaking of the Holy Eucharist. Thus, the consecration of the Gifts and the faithful receiving them remains the centerpiece of this service, as it does each time the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. The Holy Spirit is again called down on the people and on the gifts, as He came down on Pentecost, to make the ordinary gifts of bread and wine to be the extraordinary Gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ; and to make ordinary people extraordinary by partaking of them.
The Creed, as well as the Anaphora of St. Basil (the prayers surrounding the consecration of the Gifts) speak of the life of the age to come. Thus, the Vesperal Liturgy covers everything in history from the creation, to the fall, to redemption in Jesus Christ, to the work of the church, to the life of the age to comes. The journey of Holy Week is almost complete. Now we stand at the precipice of the Resurrection of Christ.
God stands in the assembly of gods; and in their midst He judges.
How long will you judge unjustly; and accept the sinners?
Judge the orphan and poor; justify the humble and needy.
Rescue the needy the poor, and deliver from the hands of sinners.
They have not known, nor understood; they walk in darkness; all the foundations of the earth shall be shaken.
I said, “you are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.”
Arise O God, and judge the earth; for You shall take all nations to Your inheritance.
(Verses from the Vesperal Liturgy, Holy Saturday morning, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas, adapted from Psalm 82:1-8
People learn history so that they can learn where they come from, to help with where they are going. The Vesperal Liturgy is a recap of history, what has been, what is, and even what is to come.