But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(1 Corinthians 15:20)
In the Scriptures, we find an interplay between the ideas of sleep and death. The Psalmist writes: Lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3), indicating there is some relationship between sleep and death – the two states are seen as being similar. The dead in the Old Testament are sometimes pictured as sleeping with their ancestors.
Sleep is sometimes used as a euphemism for death, as we note in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus (John 11) who Jesus tells His disciples had fallen asleep, meaning Lazarus had died. The implication in the Gospel of course being that death is not a permanent state, but a temporary one from which Christ can summon a person by command.
As St. Paul expresses it:
“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first…” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16)
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)
This play on the image of death as a form of sleep can also be read backwards into the creation story of Genesis 2 where God puts Adam to sleep and then removes a rib from the side of Adam to use for the creation of Eve. Genesis 2 doesn’t mention death in relationship to Adam’s sleep, but later the Patristic writers will see in the story of Eve being taken from the side of the sleeping Adam as a prototype or prefiguring of the Church, Christ’s bride, coming from His wounded side when he fell asleep upon the cross.
We can see this intentional play on images in one of the hymns from the Lenten Triodion:
I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness,
but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the Cross,
awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.
The “heavy sleep of sin” is certainly another way of implying that sin leads to death. The Scriptures call for us to be vigilant, which Christian monasticism often interpreted literally to mean we should ward off sleep and watch for the coming of Christ. But sinfulness causes us to be sleepy and disregard the warning that Christ will come at an hour when we don’t expect it.
The call to prayer is one which implies both arising from sleep and death in order to call upon the Lord. In Muslim countries the morning call to prayer reminds believers that prayer is preferable to sleep, an idea Islam no doubt learned from Christian monastics.
Christ’s falling asleep yields the resurrection and the defeat of sin and death. Christ arises from His sleep to awaken us all to that day that knows no evening – the day of the Lord.
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there…” (Revelation 21:22-25)