The Week of the Life-giving Passion and the night of the Resurrection

in the Syro-Malankara Rite of the Church in Asia

 

Francis Acharya ocso

 

Prelude

The prelude to the Life-giving Passion of our Lord is the celebration of His fast of forty days. On the last of these days, Friday before Palm Sunday, a feast day, the Church prays:

Today is the end of the Fast, and the Passion of Christ is near.

Blessed are those who please Him with fasting;

they carry spiritual gifts for the day of the Resurrection.1

 

The celebration which follows the Gospel accounts, day by day, is introduced by two significant feasts foreshadowing the Passover mystery: Jesus’ sorrow at the death of Lazarus followed by His friend’s resurrection, and, on the following day, His solemn entry into Jerusalem.

 

The significance of these two celebrations is that they renew the faith of the Church in both the humanity and the divinity of her Lord. The tears of Jesus at the tomb of His friend witness to His humanity, as the friendly Jews themselves observed: ‘How dearly He must have loved him;’ while the manifestation of His power over death reveals His divinity when, ‘He commanded in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out”, and the dead man came out, hands and feet bound with bandages.’ Similarly, the following day, Palm Sunday, He made His solemn entry into Jerusalem, loudly, even exuberantly acclaimed as the messiah by the youth and the people. However, he was not enthroned in glory, but seated on a poor donkey, while the pharisees reprimanded Him, perceiving the threat which such an event held out for the Jewish establishment:

Our Lord came to this world walking in humility.

Prompted by His love for all creatures, He became flesh,

and did not use the adorned mount of the mighty.

He rode on an ass to visit His people in humility.2

 

The prayers of the Syrian Churches for this week reveal to us the deep insights which they had about their Saviour, His love for them, and the terrible humiliation which He allowed to befall Him so that humankind could be reconciled with the Father. They are a beautiful expression of a Christian culture which is neither Latin nor Greek, but belongs to the ancient Asian Semitic world. The style of these prayers is simple and direct. They are also remarkably biblical in their inspiration and devoid of any later Western philosophical thought. They offer us the most beautiful poetic writings on the mysteries of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord, the mysteries which are at the heart of their life. These events are celebrated simultaneously all through the week, in the one perspective of the death of the Son of God at the hands of the sons of men, and of His Resurrection from the dead. They proclaim His victory over Satan, death and sin, which brings about the restoration of Adam and his children to their full participation in God’s life. Yet, within this unique perspective for the whole week, each day still retains its proper identity.

 

These are very privileged days, as the re-enactment of the Life-giving Mysteries obtains its full vigour in their original unfolding in time, one week. Day by day, hour by hour, the Church identifies with her Lord in His prophetic utterances and gestures, His agony and His trials, His crucifixion and His death and burial, His descent into Sheol to announce there first His Resurrection.

 

The dramatic character of the celebration

The stage is set for the week’s celebration on Sunday evening, when the sanctuary remains closed after the altar has been stripped, and in the nave all the icons have been removed. The curtain will be drawn aside only on Thursday for the celebration of the Great Passover. The worshipping community will now gather for her cultic assemblies without the eucharistic celebration. They come together before the Bible stand from where the Gospel is read at the conclusion of each hour. The prayer of the Church concentrates exclusively on Christ. No prayer is addressed to the saints or makes mention of them, except on Thursday and Saturday, at the celebration of the communion of saints.

 

Hence the climactic place given this week to the Gospel which is read in its harmonised form. The text is woven together out of the four Gospels in an ongoing account without leaving out any detail, even any variant, so that no crumb may fall on the ground and no meaningful word be left out of the wondrous story of the life-giving sufferings of the Uniquely Beloved Son of God.

 

The celebration embraces all the human events and divine interventions related to it, or which led to it, and finally brought it about. This extends very far, for the Passion of our Lord is related to the account of creation and the fall of our forefathers, with the call and the sacrifice of Abraham, the ill-treatment of his descendants in Egypt, their liberation with divine power and their settlement in the land of promise, together with the seers and the messianic kings, the prophets and the sages, the law and the temple, the feast of the year and the daily sacrifices. It is out of all these that the Son of Mary emerges with increasingly clearer features. He is the Servant of the Lord, the Teacher, the Mediator of Salvation, but also the Innocent Victim who came to suffer in order that the guilty might repent and find mercy at the hour of judgement. The same Servant was later to be acknowledged by His disciples as the Image of the Invisible God and the First-born of every creature.

 

Monday and Tuesday

On Monday and Tuesday, the prayer of the Church spells out the mounting opposition to the mission of Jesus.  Two main biblical themes stand out. They are proclaimed in the scriptural readings, and in the accompanying hymns: the vineyard of God and the watchfulness which the coming of the Lord demands. The theme of the vineyard is first evoked by the account of the murder of Naboth at the hands of King Ahab’s men, in order to seize the poor man’s land. More moving and constantly evoked is Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, the Song of God’s love rejected by His beloved. More dramatic still is the Gospel’s parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard, because it comes from the lips of Jesus Himself and was taught by Him to illustrate the existential situation in which He found Himself, and to reveal His own place in the perspective of the whole Economy of Salvation. This gives it an unsurpassable force. The parable is at once judgement and promise.

 

The persecution and the killing of the prophets find their climax in the persecution and killing of the Son. But the rejected stone becomes the corner stone. The Messiah, rebuffed by the jealous leaders of the people, will be exalted as the Lord on high through His Resurrection. His victory over death marks the time of the Church to whom is entrusted the new life, and ushers in the Reign of God in which is gathered the harvest of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, humility and self-control, all expressions of the love of God and of the whole world. It is remarkable that the sedros, the Eucharistic Prayers which are at the heart of each hour on Monday and Tuesday to celebrate the events of the Lord’s work of salvation, are offered meaningfully on each day of the week.

 

Wednesday

Wednesday is called the Wednesday of conspiracies. The Gospel tells us that the chief priests and the elders of the people, the Sanhedrin, the highest court of justice and supreme council, conspired to arrest Jesus secretly to put Him to death. Their antagonism towards Him has reached its climax and takes a decisive turn:

A people foolish and blind conspire to condemn Him to death

because he came to them seeking fruits of recognition

from the vineyard planted at His command.3

 

But the darkest feature of the conspiracies is of course the betrayal of Judas, which crops up again and again in the prayer of the Church, even on Thursday:

On Wednesday and Thursday, at Jerusalem,

there is intrigue and tension between buyer and seller,

and neither of them makes any gain. Judas sells and Caiaphas purchases.

 

They are traders of deception.

He who sells does not gain, neither does he who buys.

Jesus Himself is troubled in spirit,

when He reveals the betrayal to His disciples,

Judas receives the bread and goes forth. It was night.4

 

At other times He reveals the whole drama to His disciples with great serenity:

On Wednesday our Lord revealed a hidden mystery

to His disciples: ‘Do not grieve, little ones,

because it is for you that I die. The people will take Me

and crucify Me on Golgotha. They will pierce

My hands with nails for the sake of Adam,

the earthly one. I love him unto death.5

 

Thursday of the Great Passover

The name of this celebration attests its Old Testament origins, the Jewish feast of the Passover or of the Paschal Lamb, but its newness is immediately asserted, even in the opening praise of the celebration:

Christ, who by your Passover

have ended the Passover of the lamb,

Rejoice us with Your Passover and be gracious to all.

 

The responses and hymns, as usual, are truly woven out of the Gospel account. The theology of the day, the theology of the Mysteries, that is of the sacraments, is found mainly in the Eucharistic Prayers:

After eating with Your disciples the lamb prescribed by the law and while celebrating the Mystery of the Passover, You made them understand that the prefiguration was now to be fulfilled, and the foreshadowing was to yield to the light, and the truth to be manifested. I have a Mystery. I have a Mystery, I and the children of My household, a new Mystery which is revealed to them. And taking the bread in Your holy hands, and having said the blessing and broken it, You gave it to your disciples, the children of Your Mystery, saying, This is My body which is broken for many and is given for the sins of the world. And You mixed the cup from wine and water, and gave it to them to drink saying, This is the cup of the New Covenant in My blood. Take and drink it, all of you. Do not doubt that I sacrifice Myself and consecrate Myself for you. From this time the old order has passed away and all things have become new. Do this in memory of Me.

On this evening You conferred the priesthood on the whole company of Peter’s household, and they took charge of the Divine Treasure-house to distribute Your living body among the peoples and the nations, and to give your blood to drink to all the tribes and races. Likewise today, on this evening, it is given in remission of sins to all lands and countries according to your commandment, Lord, to accomplish Your Life-giving Memorial.6

 

The Lord had already revealed the newness of his Passover when He washed the feet of His disciples. The Holy Washing, undoubtedly, was meant to remove from the Twelve, the pillars of the Church, all triumphalism and self-complacency in the fulfilment of their mission. The, ‘all things have become new’ and ‘the Wonderful Mystery,’ can only be the fruit of the humiliation and the utter self-sacrifice of Christ, and later of His followers.

 

The Great Friday of the Crucifixion

Friday is the climax of the celebration of the Week of the Life-giving Passion. In St Paul’s well known hymn of the letter to the Philippians on the Mystery of the Word made flesh, it is the kenosis of Christ in His death, which marks the fullness of his humiliation, that opens the way to His glorification. The Friday of the Great Suffering, as it is also called, is very much the climax of the celebration in Kerala, where Good Friday is a public holiday   all work ceases and the whole day is observed as a day of fast and prayer. In the churches the day is marked by long ceremonies. In the Ashram we begin at 4am and continue in prayer, with some brief intervals, until 3pm. there are two processions. The first one, outside, as when Christ was led out to Golgotha; the other, inside, after the adoration of the Cross, when the body of Christ   the naked Cross   is carried to the sanctuary to be buried under the altar. But the golden thread of the celebration is the proclamation of the Gospel, hour after hour, with the appropriate readings from the law, from the prophets and the apostolic writings, with well chosen psalms, hymns and homilies.

 

In all this, the prayer of the Church shows no tendency to magnify the apostles. It repeatedly brings out their total failure to stand by their Master and Lord, all of them. Peter’s denial is recalled as the most miserable fall. But the whole Madrosho  of St Ephrem describes, in very moving yet uncompromising terms, the pangs of the conversion that brought him back to the feet of his Master.7  It is the inner drama that inspires our hymns, as when the thief’s repentance is contrasted with the disciples’ inconstancy:

The faith of the thief is truly great and firm,

as he asks forgiveness from his Lord hanging on the Cross.

While the nails are in His hands and His feet,

he says, Forgive me my evil-doing.

 

Simon Peter denies Him saying with an oath,

I do not know this man.

John the Virgin and the disciples flee and are scattered,

but the criminal cries out, Remember me, my Lord,

when you come into Your Kingdom.8

 

One of the most astounding prayers of the Great Friday of the Crucifixion is the Supplication song of the Morning service. The Gospel tells us that at  the end of the night trial, when the Sanhedrin pronounced that Jesus deserved death, he was taken to Pilate in the early morning in order to obtain the Governor’s verdict. At this announcement the Church, seeing the death of her spouse as the dawn of new life, as the new creation, bursts into praise:

Glory to You, Christ-morning,

from all that Your majesty has created.

Glory to You, on all mornings,

for You are the morning that gladdens all.

 

Glory to You from all beauties,

For You are the beauty of all beauties.

You are He who clothes with beauty

all plants and flowers.

Glory to You who are the staff

and the support of all those who need support.

 

Glory to You, Lord of graciousness.

Glory to You, Lord of all, a thousand times.

Glory to You, myriads and myriads of times.

Glory to You, Judge of judges, who stood in the tribunal.

 

Glory to You, our Lord, from Your Church.

And praise to You from her children.

Glory to You and to the Father who sent You.

And to the Holy Spirit exaltation.9

 

Saturday of the Good Tidings

This is the celebration proper of the Antiochian Church. All the hours are still celebrated before the drawn curtain of the sanctuary. But an altar has been erected there for the celebration of the Eucharist, at noon, after the prayer of the Sixth Hour. But all this is done sotto voce, in a subdued voice, out of respect for the body of Christ resting, buried in the sanctuary. The salvific event which is celebrated is the first announcement of the Resurrection of Jesus, when He Himself brought it to the dead, when at His death on the cross, His soul joined them in Sheol. Though not celebrated by the Latin and Greek Churches, this is an event of the Economy of Salvation well attested in the Holy Scriptures, in both testaments, as can be seen from the readings of the day. As Peter said on the day of Pentecost, after quoting David’s psalm, ‘My flesh shall rest in hope, for Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor let Thy loyal servant see corruption.’ When David said that he was not abandoned to Sheol and His flesh never suffered corruption, he spoke with foreknowledge of the resurrection of the Messiah. Though not yet found in the Nicene Creed, the Descent of Christ into Sheol is included in several later symbols of the faith: ‘Jesus… was buried. He went down to the dead. On the third day He rose again from the dead:’ Christ’s descent into Sheol has long been popular in Christian iconography, and it is still held as the proper icon of the Resurrection of Christ. The descent of Jesus among the dead is celebrated by the Church as an epiphany

of His victory over the powers of death. In that sense it anticipates the appearance of Jesus after his resurrection on the third day.

 

The Gospels of the day are the accounts of the burial of Jesus. The prayers celebrate the mystery that is hidden in it as the manifestation of Christ’s power over death. They praise ‘His life-giving burial sprinkling on the dead the dew of graciousness, of compassion and of the new life.’10  They speak of it as His visit to Adam, when He reclined at his side, making Himself one of the dead in order to announce life to them. And this takes the form of a real theophany, ‘Today a great light shines in Sheol which had never seen the light.’11   The realism of the mystery is conveyed with great power, by having recourse as usual to the contrast of opposites, ‘Christ, Life Divine, Incorruptible and Immortal entwined Himself with Death, was knit together with her.’12  Mary herself is made to witness to this life-giving tragedy, even before the burial:

Mary drew near Jesus.

She leaned her head against the Cross

and began to sing sorrowfully lamentations to Him.

My Son, who will give me the wings of an eagle

to fly to the four quarters of the earth

and invite all nations to come

to the feast of Your great slaughter.13

 

There are also dramatic personifications of the powers at work in the conflict of the Creation with God:

The Lord cried out in a loud voice and Death heard it.

The Creation was terrified and the rocks split apart.

Light shone in the darkness

and the radiance of the Son wiped out Death.

 

Those who were lying prostrate in Sheol clapped their hands

for the voice of the Resurrection that called them.

Death terror-stricken howled and said to Satan,

her friend, Hear from me what happened:

the tombs burst open and the dead went forth.

 

‘His name is Jesus’ answered the Evil One.

He is the fruit which came to the Virgin.

He is the Son of God, and the worlds quaked

when He was crucified on Golgotha.

He takes away your burden, He who was crucified

at the hands of the people who listened to me.14

 

While being essentially a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and of His salvation, it includes the commemoration of those to whom the resurrection is announced and who have experienced His salvation, as narrated in the Gospel according to St Matthew. ‘Today Sheol is resounding with praises and the dead rejoicing in their tombs shoot up as flowers in the month of April… the captives return to their former place. Today all those who slept cry out with one accord, Blessed is the glory of the Lord from His place for ever.’15  Hence the celebration of the Service of the communion of Saints at the Night Vigil, quite exceptional this week, turns into a universal commemoration of all the saints and the just since the creation:

Garlands of praises and adoration are offered

by the just whom He awakes by His crucifixion.

First Adam, the head of all races comes to worship, and Seth

the beautiful, and the house of Noah together with Abraham.

 

Then come the just, the father and the leaders of all peoples,

the priests and the kings whom the prince of Sheol

first took captive. Moses and all the companies of the prophets,

Aaron the priest and all the priests, sons of Levi,

offer their adoration.16

 

Finally the mystery is brought closer to us in the last Service of this day, the Service of Mutual Forgiveness which will be sealed at night, at the end of the Service of the Resurrection, with the mutual gift of peace, following the Exaltation of the Cross, the Exaltation of the Risen Christ.

 

The Night of the Resurrection

There is only one Christian feast, the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection from among the dead. This is the feast of feasts and there is no other like it. All the other feasts flow from it as a river from its source. It is also the crown of glory of all other festivals. A new humanity is created, a redeemed, vivified humankind, after overcoming death, sin and Satan.

As in Adam all men died                                  

so in Christ all are brought  to life…

Christ, the Firstfruits, and afterwards…

those who belong to Christ.

Then comes the end, when he delivers up the Kingdom to God the Father…

until God is all in all.17

 

As all the prophecies come to fulfilment today, the Creation sings praise to Christ who is risen. The Church is filled with holy light, Like His tomb at the Resurrection, and she does not cease to sing and praise:

The Day which has no evening…                                 

the new Day which dispels the ancient darkness…

the bright Morning which no setting shall veil…

the Flower of the Resurrection

which marks the end of suffering

and makes creatures of this earth like the creatures of heaven.18

 

Once more the newness of the mystery is conveyed in a cascade of contrasts:

Yesterday the Shepherd was struck and the sheep scattered                 

and today they gather together with joy and exultation.

Yesterday Judas received the thirty pieces of silver

and Caiaphas gave orders and had them obeyed.

Annas accused.

The elders of the priests made much ado.

The scribes spread terror.

Pilate sat in judgement and the Lord stood before him.

 

Today Caiaphas is confounded.

Annas is ridiculed and Judas has hanged himself

and thrown away the thirty pieces of silver.

The scribes are cowed.

The elders of the priests are cast down.

The Pharisees are covered with shame

and accuse one another of having committed a fault.

Today the way to the tomb resounds with good tidings,

echoed on Golgotha still wrapped in grief.19

 

We have called the feast the Night of the Resurrection to indicate that all our services are celebrated between sunset of Saturday and dawn on Sunday. At the end of the Third Watch, long before dawn, priests and deacons enter the sanctuary for the Service of the Resurrection, when the Cross   the body of Christ buried under the altar on Friday   is taken out of the tomb, no more as the naked Cross, but as the Cross of life, dressed in a red stole, as the solitary conqueror of Isaiah when he was asked ‘Why is your garment red?’ The red stole is the garment of victory. This is well signified when the Cross is raised three times before the congregation, by the main celebrant, ‘We bring you good tidings. Christ is risen from the tomb…’ while the congregation responds each time, ‘We believe and confess that He is truly risen.’ And when the priests and deacons have resumed their place in the congregation, soon will be heard the triumphant ninefold halleluia, which will resound every day of the year to mark the Fourth Watch of the Night Vigil, the greeting of the dawn, the new day.

 

The Eucharist, celebrated after Lauds, ends usually at dawn on Sunday.

 

 

Notes

 1.  Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit, The Prayer of Asian Churches, vol. III, p.335. Henceforth PWHS, III, 335.

 2.  PWHS, III, 320.

 3.  PWHS, III, 450-451.

 4.  PWHS, III, 462-463.

 5.  PWHS, III, 450

 6.  PWHS, III, 468-9 & 515.

 7.  PWHS, III, 527-29.

 8.  PWHS, III, 556

 9.  PWHS, III, 545.

10. PWHS, III, 568.

11. PWHS, III, 570

12. PWHS, III, 574.

13. PWHS, III, 571.

14. PWHS, III, 576-577.

15. PWHS, III, 584.

16. PWHS, III, 592

17. PWHS, III, 1 Cor. 15:22-28.

18. PWHS, III, 618.

19. PWHS, III, 618-619.