I once heard a group of people talking about the purpose of the Orthros (or Matins) service that usually precedes the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Someone in the group said, “That’s the service where the priest warms up his voice.” Someone else said, “That’s the service only the old people go to because it’s all in Greek.” And someone else said, “No one goes to that service so why would I?” The truth is that the Divine Liturgy is ninety percent the same each time we offer it. With the exception of a few hymns and the Scripture readings, it is always the same. What differs each day is the Orthros service. It is literally the service of the day. Most of the reflections on the Greatest Story Ever Sung are going to focus on hymns of the Orthros. That’s because most of the services we are familiar with in Holy Week are actually Orthros services. (more to come on that) Orthros services focus on telling the story of a saint or an event in hymns. That’s what makes each Orthros service unique. On most Sundays, there are hymns of the Resurrection, which again proclaim for us on the Lord’s Day, the account of His Resurrection in song. Every saint’s day Orthros does the same thing, it tells the story of that saint in song.
The first Orthros of Holy Week takes place on Saturday of Lazarus, and the hymns contained in it tell the story of the raising of Lazarus. Today’s reflection will focus on the humanity of Jesus. We know that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. Because He was fully man, He had all the emotions, as well as needs of man. He got hungry, as an example. He got tired. And He desired friendships as we all do. He had close relationships with certain people. While He loved all people, as He teaches us to love all people, He was very close with certain people, His disciples, and other friends.
Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, were friends of Jesus. They lived in Bethany, which was about two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus came to Jerusalem often, because the temple was there and it was the Jewish custom to go to the temple in Jerusalem at least a few times a year. In fact, it was a matter of Jewish Law. Thus, Jesus was going to Jerusalem at least a few times a year and probably more. On His journeys there, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was probably the place where He was staying, and certainly, He would have stopped there for a meal and for fellowship. Jesus loved these people. They were some of His closest friends.
When Jesus had come to Bethany and Lazarus had already been dead four days, the scene became one we are familiar with when someone dies. Mary and Martha were understandably upset and grieving. We read in the Gospel that many of the Jews had come to console Mary and Martha. The use of the word “Jews” is intentional. Obviously, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, and all their friends were Jewish. Jesus was going to raise Lazarus from the dead and one of the Messianic signs that the Jewish people were looking for was that the Messiah would be able to raise the dead. While the message of Jesus was for all people, and He talked to Gentiles and Samaritans, it was important that the upcoming miracle was going to take place amongst the Jews.
Martha ran to Jesus, her friend, and when she saw Him, she cried. Mary and Martha did recognize that their friend was also the Christ, so when their friend came to them, they also addressed Him as “Lord.” Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” (John 11: 21-22) This might be read as a complaint—if You had been here, my brother would not have died—however, even if it is, it is followed by a statement of faith—Even NOW I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You. In other words, if You want to raise Him from the dead, I believe that is possible.
I read Martha’s words as “Thy will be done,” which are, in fact, the hardest words to pray. We pray them in the Lord’s Prayer, but do we really mean them? Are we really ready to submit our desires to His will? Martha leaves open many possibilities as she says “whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” A resurrection from the dead was obviously a possibility, and perhaps there were other possibilities as well. Leaving this in Jesus’ hands, to do whatever He willed in the situation shows a great faith on the part of Martha, even in the midst of her grief. Figure that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were peers of Jesus, so Lazarus dying at a young age was probably something his sisters did not expect. In our unexpected tragedies, it is important to have the faith Martha had, still recognizing Jesus as Lord and putting the outcome of the situation into His hands.
John 11:35 is the shortest verse of the Bible. It says “Jesus wept.” When Jesus went to the tomb, He showed a very human reaction. He cried. It is critical that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, that He is both God and man. We are not God, so we could not relate to Him on a divine level. Also, in order to suffer and die for our sins, He had to do so as one of us. Isaiah 53:4 reads “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The humanity of Jesus should comfort us—He lived with us and understands our sadness because He experienced it in the ways we experience it.
Source of wisdom and foreknowledge, Christ, You still inquired of the neighbors of Martha in Bethany, O Lord. And You said, “Where have you laid beloved Lazarus?” Sympathetically You wept for Your friend four days dead. Then by Your word alone You raised him, as the Lord and Giver of Life, O compassionate Lover of humanity. (Kathisma, Saturday of Lazarus, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
The hymns we have reflected on remind us of the humanity of Jesus. The next reflection will point to His divinity.