Preparing to Raise Lazarus

A number of the Triodion Hymns during this last week of Great Lent (“the Week of Palms”) focus on Christ raising His friend Lazarus from the dead.  The hymns are very consistent with other Orthodox hymns in how they conflate eternity with time, leading us to approach the event as if it is happening before our very eyes, while simultaneously reminding us that we know how these events play out, and they have an eternal or timeless meaning.    We approach the event in the hymns as if we are seeing it as it occurs (which is the liturgical way in which we “remember”events) but not as if we don’t know its outcome.  Our “remembering” allows us to know the conclusion of the event from its onset.  We are not pretending to re-enact the events as if we don’t know the outcome.  We are entering into the events to experience them for the full revelation which God has made through them.  So as we liturgically “remember” theological events we are always fully cognizant of their ultimate significance while they are unfolding.  This is part of liturgical anticipation: we know and experience the eschaton now in the theological events we celebrate liturgically.

We will consider three hymns from this “Week of Palms.”  The first hymn from Wednesday Matins doesn’t so much take us back in time as it does to bring the event forward into our time.   Today Lazarus is buried says the hymn.  This is not a past tense event.  We are remembering the event and putting it into our lives today as well as acknowledging its eternal significance.

TODAY LAZARUS IS BURIED

AND HIS SISTERS SING IN LAMENTATION.

BUT IN YOUR DIVINE FOREKNOWLEDGE,

YOU HAVE PREDICTED WHAT SHOULD COME TO PASS:

LAZARUS IS SLEEPING, YOU PROPHESIED TO YOUR DISCIPLES,

BUT NOW I GO TO RAISE UP HIM WHOM I CREATED!

THEREFORE WE ALL CRY TO YOU: GLORY TO YOUR MIGHTY POWER!

We are not like the actual characters who lived this event.  We are given a different perspective in which the full truth is known to us though it was not clear at that time to those who experienced it.  We have a better perspective than the actual eyewitnesses!  We have the mind of Christ!   We understand as the narrative enters into our life as Christian community that Christ knows what He is going to do:  He is going to raise Lazarus from the dead.  And we know that Christ is the Creator who created Lazarus and called him into being.  This was not yet fully known or understood by the disciples or by Jesus’ friends.  They were in the process of learning who Jesus is.  We already know, but we are able to experience these events with the eyes of faith.  And, in anticipation of what we will celebrate on Lazarus Saturday we can already rejoice today.

The next hymn from Thursday Matins continues laying before us the events as they unfolded.  Lazarus has been dead for a couple of days and his sisters are in grief.

LAZARUS HAS NOW BEEN DEAD FOR TWO DAYS.

HIS SISTERS MARTHA AND MARY SHED TEARS OF GRIEF FOR HIM,

GAZING AT THE STONE BEFORE HIS TOMB.

BUT THE CREATOR HAS COME WITH HIS DISCIPLES,

TO DESPOIL DEATH AND BESTOW LIFE!

THEREFORE LET US CRY OUT TO HIM:

O LORD, GLORY TO YOU!

Martha and Mary still do not know what is about to happen, be we who are remembering these events have full awareness.  We see Jesus, not merely as the human friend of Lazarus, but as The Creator.  Jesus Christ is the incarnate God.   Christ has come not just to grieve for the loss of his friend, He comes as God to save His creature.  Christ is here to destroy death and give life again to His creature who has died.  The hymns, like icons, do not try to give us a photograph of the events showing us what anyone would have seen that day.  Rather the hymns and icons are portraying to us the hidden spiritual dimensions of what is happening.  This is God appearing on earth, with His creatures whom He loves.  God incarnate is present to save humans from death and to raise them from the place of the dead.  Mary and Martha stand “gazing at the stone before Lazarus’ tomb.”  The stone blocks them from seeing any more.  They can’t see what is going to happen.  But we already know what Christ is going to do because we have the mind of Christ.  That stone does not block our vision – we know Christ raises Lazarus from the dead.

The last hymn follows a particularly Orthodox way of interpreting scriptural events.  It takes the events and applies them to our lives – to teach us how we might live this Gospel narrative today in our own lives.  We are called to follow the example of Martha and Mary, but how can we do that since we aren’t there and live in such a different time?

FAITHFUL, LET US FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF MARTHA AND MARY:

LET US SEND OUR ACTS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS TO INTERCEDE BEFORE THE LORD,

THAT HE MAY COME TO RAISE UP FROM THE DEAD OUR SPIRITUAL UNDERSTANDING

WHICH LIES INSENSIBLE WITHIN THE TOMB OF NEGLIGENCE,

LACKING ALL FEELING OF THE FEAR OF GOD,

AND DEPRIVED OF LIVING ACTION.

LET US CRY: MERCIFUL LORD, AS ONCE BY YOUR DREAD AUTHORITY

YOU RAISED UP YOUR FRIEND LAZARUS,

SO NOW GIVE LIFE TO US ALL, AND GRANT US YOUR GREAT MERCY!

The hymn tells us that what we can learn from the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus is that when we perform charitable deeds or do other righteous acts, we are making an offering to God and He will bless us as He blessed Martha, Mary and Lazarus who were His friends and who lived godly lives.  But the dead to be raised is not just a friend, but is our own spiritual understanding within us.  When we fail to practice our faith, when we fail to imitate Christ, when we neglect our spiritual lives, our hearts and minds die spiritually.   The hymn turns the raising of Lazarus from a miracle of long ago to be remembered, concerning one man, into something we all can live and experience today.  Christ especially loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, no doubt because they lived the commandments of love which He was teaching.  The hymn tells us to imitate them, so that we too will be friends of Christ and that He will want to raise us up from the dead on that last day.

In this hymn the miracle of the raising of Lazarus is not something limited to that one man 2000 years ago.  We each can experience a resurrection – of our own spiritual lives.  The raising of Lazarus is to help us believe in Christ and to live the Gospel.  It is not only a past historical event that we can marvel at, it is something which can revive our own hearts and souls and resurrect us from spiritual death.

Rejoice in the Lord and Serve Him

“It seems that nobody around us is happy- happy with the happiness that should be flowing out of Liturgy, prayer, theology, etc. We all firmly proclaim that one cannot be happy without God. But then why is man so unhappy with God? It seems that religion amplifies all that is petty and low in man: pride, self-glorification, fear! For years I have been asking myself this question.

It seems that in the world there is no longer a peaceful, humble, joyful and free standing before God, walking to Him; no more: ‘Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in Him with trembling…’ (Psalms 2:11).

So, I rejoice in every hour of solitude, of autumn sunshine on golden trees, of total calm and silence.” (The Journals of  Father Alexander Schmemann, pg. 134)

Eucharistic Discipline

“The Eucharist belongs to and is shared by those who have been baptized into the Church and who hold a common faith in the bond of love. Thus, only those Orthodox Christians in full communion with the Church may partake of the Holy Gifts. For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is not an instrument or means for achieving Christian unity, but the very sign and crowning of that union based on doctrinal truths and canonical harmony already held and possessed in common.

The Eucharist is both a celebration and a confession of the faith of the Church. Hence it is not possible to approach Holy Communion by way of hospitality. It is expected that every baptized and chrismated Orthodox adult, child, and infant be regular and frequent recipients of the Divine Mysteries. It is presupposed that adult and children communicants have fasted from the evening meal prior to receiving Holy Communion at the morning Eucharist. However, care must be exercised never to consider Holy Communion a reward for pious feelings and actions, but as a gift of the Lord to the members who comprise his Body, the Church.”

(Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy: Volume 3, pg. 172)

Worshiping in Beauty and Symbol

“Thus in our prayer we use words not just literally but beautifully; through poetic imagery – even if the texts are in rhythmic prose rather than rhymed stanzas – we endow the words with a new dimension of meaning.

We worship, moreover, not through words only but in a wide variety of other ways: through music, through the splendor of the priestly vestments,

through the color and lines of the holy icons, through the articulation of sacred space in the design of the church building,

through symbolic gestures such as the sign of the cross, the offering of incense, or the lighting of a candle,

and through the employment of all great ‘archetypes,’ of all the basic constituents of human life, such as water, wine and bread, fire and oil.”    (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, pg. 63)

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The Liturgy: Making US the Body of Christ

“… leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals – a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or ‘ministry’ of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose. Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom.”     (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, p 25)

Hearing the Prayers of the Divine Liturgy

The prayers of the Divine Liturgy are a call to action on the part of the people of God, as the word “liturgy” implies it is the work of all the people of God.  We are, among many things, called upon in the Liturgy to pray,  to pay attention, to lift up our hearts, to love one another, to be of one heart and mind, to lay aside earthly cares, to give thanks to God as well as to ascent to the fact that God’s kingdom is blessed.  The Liturgy is not for spectators to merely stand around while others do the work, we are prayed into being the living temple of  God.  We are prompted to embody, enact and incarnate the very words we pray.  We call for the Holy Spirit to come upon us, the people of God, as well as upon the Gifts offered so that both we and the gifts become the Body of Christ. When we hear the words of the Divine Liturgy, we are called upon to remember the entire history of salvation.  The words of the Liturgy are the commemoration of salvation history, they are needed for us to remember what God has done so that we can be lifted up to the heavenly kingdom.  Indeed the Liturgy is the Church remembering and commemorating the events of our salvation, which in turn is how we liturgically and sacramentally participate in the Lord’s life which is our salvation.

In their thoughtful book, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif tell a wonderful story from the life of St. Melania the Younger which gives us the sense of how important it is to hear and live the prayers of the Divine Liturgy:

“But Melania deeply loved the liturgy, literally till her dying breath. On the Sunday on which she died, she asked to be placed inside the church close to the relics of the martyrs. She encouraged her priest to celebrate the liturgy even though she was ‘in total agony’ from the disease she was suffering. As she was listening to the service, she noticed that the priest was so overwhelmed with grief that he could not pray loud enough for her to hear the prayer for the descent of the Holy Spirit on the communion elements, to which she called out, ‘Raise your voice so that I will hear the prayer (the epiclesis).’”   (Kindle Loc. 1309-13)

It is godly to hear the prayers of the Divine Liturgy especially the epiclesis.  It is saintly to want even to one’s last breath to have the words of the Liturgy fill one’s heart and mind for these words are the breath of the Holy Spirit.

The Divine Liturgy

“The Divine Liturgy is a sublime creation which enables man to abide without despair in spite of his distance from God, because it is God’s own good pleasure to overshadow him each time he enters into His presence. We bring the best we can offer before God in the Liturgy.[…]

Throughout the history of the Church, the Liturgy has been the ‘place’ where Christians have learned to dwell in the presence of God and thereby to receive the life of God, Who is ‘the Bread of Life which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world’.

Created in God’s image and likeness, man’s deepest desire is for contact with his Creator: divine worship is therefore the main preoccupation of the spiritual person. It is in divine worship that man fulfils his true purpose, and in this he joins the feast of ‘the spirits of just men made perfect’ in the heavenly Jerusalem. He is sanctified and united to God in the Holy Eucharist through his partaking of the perfection of divine grace. Christ Himself is present in divine worship, according to His promise, especially in the Divine Liturgy. He dwells among His anointed and makes them His Church, His Body, of which He is the Head Who imparts life and the gifts of His Spirit to His members.” (Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, pgs. 211-212)

The Eucharist: Calling for the Holy Spirit

St. John Chrysostom compares the miracle of the consecration of bread and wine in the Liturgy to the Prophet Elijah (Elias) calling for fire from heaven to consume the altar in 1 Kings 18:25-40.

“Do you not rather feel transported straightaway into heaven?…Imagine the scene when Elias stands with the immense throng surrounding him, the victim laid on the altar, and everywhere is stillness and profound silence. The prophet stands alone and prays: and immediately the fire comes down from heaven upon the altar. Then change the scene to the sacrifice which is now offered, and you will see a wonder; rather, something beyond admiration. For the priest as he stands there brings down not fire, but the Holy Spirit. His long prayer is not that fire may come down from heaven to consume the oblation, but that grace may descend upon the sacrifice, and through that sacrifice kindle the souls of all, to make them brighter than silver which has been tried in the fire.” (Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, pg. 6)

Christmas Giving: Giving to Christ

“‘Therefore at his birth we kept festival, both I the leader of the feast, and you, and all that is in the world and above the world. With the star we ran, and with the magi we worshiped, and with the shepards we were surrounded by light, and with the angels we gave glory.’ (Oration 39.14). At Christmas he invited the faithful to join the magi, shepherds, and angels in a common act of worship celebrating the birth of God incarnate: ‘Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance. Let there be a common celebration of the heavenly and earthly powers.’ (Oration 38.17)” (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus in Festal Orations, pg. 28)

Serving God Not Just the Parish

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “And the parish as parish, i.e., as Church has no other task, no other purpose but to reveal, to manifest, to announce, this Living God so that men may know Him, love Him and then, find in Him their real vocations and tasks.” He also wrote: “The parish is the means for men of serving God and it itself must serve God and His work and only then is it justified and becomes ‘Church’. And again it is the sacred duty and the real function of the priest not to ‘serve the parish’, but to make the parish serve God – and there is a tremendous difference between those two functions. And for the parish to serve God means, first of all, to help God’s work wherever it is to be helped.” (Robert T. Osborn in St. Vladimir’s Seminary  Quarterly Vol. 9 Number 4, pgs.187-188, 190)