GREAT AND HOLY SATURDAY MORNING
As we attempt to make sense of the awesome self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Shepherd Who gave up His own life to save His sheep, we approach His tomb on our knees, and kiss His wounded feet. He took upon Himself a temporary but real death in order to rescue us from everlasting death. The punishment of everlasting death which we unquestionably deserve for our sins is mitigated because He stood in our stead: the immortal Savior subjected Himself to mortality so that we mortals whom He saved might be raised to immortality by Him on the last day.
We are overcome by humble gratitude as we begin to grasp, even in a limited way, the implications of His sacrificial self-emptying for the sake of our salvation. ‘We stand unworthily before (His) tomb' (Oktoekhos, Mode 1) and offer our hymns of praise.
Liturgically, this gratitude finds its expression in the Morning Service of Holy Saturday, often held on the night of Holy Friday, since -- as we already admitted -- we will probably not have the strength of purpose needed to chant these praises at one o'clock in the morning.
Just as we do in the Funeral Service (and in the Midnight Service, most of the time), we chant Psalm 118, the longest of the psalms. But in this ‘funeral' of our Lord, we insert a troparion after each verse of the psalm. Generally, the verses are chanted by the choir or the congregation, and the clergy or the cantors take the troparions. In any case, the chanting is usually done antiphonally. Each troparion, often just a single sentence, is a terse commentary on the awesome mystery of the death of the Son of God. There are 176 of these troparions, one for each verse of the psalm, and this is a lengthy service. But, lest we be tempted to complain about its length,
we might remember that our Savior endured six hours on the cross.
These troparions are sometimes called ‘lamentations' (_threnoi_), although the Triodion refers to them as ‘eulogies' or ‘words of tribute' (_egkomia_), and this is more in keeping with their spirit, which is one of praise rather than of mourning, although mourning is not completely excluded. These are very emotional hymns, masterpieces of concentrated thought, urging us to ever deeper contemplation of what Jesus has done for us.
At the very end of the Morning Service, the Shroud (_epitaphion_) bearing the image of the dead Christ is reverently taken up from its bier. Preceded by the cross, surrounded by torches, and escorted by the clergy who carry the Gospel Book as a sign of Christ's divine and ever-living presence in the Church, the Shroud is borne outdoors into the predawn darkness in a solemn procession of the people with their lighted candles, chanting (as at a funeral) the Trisagion Hymn, accompanied by the mournful tolling of the bells.
Although this is one of the most recently developed rites of Passion Week, and the occasionally encountered custom of ‘passing under the Shroud' is even later, this procession has become a very important expression of popular piety. Many people regard the original burial cloth of Christ (the ‘Holy Shroud' now preserved at Torino) as the prototype of the image we venerate on this day.
When the procession reenters the temple, the Shroud is replaced on the bier in the center of the nave, where it has lain since the Un-Nailing, and where it will now remain until the end of the Midnight Service. An apparently older practice, still observed in some of the churches and giving evidence of this rite's recent adoption, has the Shroud now brought directly to the Holy Table, which is frequently referenced as the ‘tomb of Christ' well apart from Holy Friday. But, resuming our thoughts about the rites which most of us practice now, we faithful bow low, kneeling and pressing our faces to the floor before our Lord's Shroud twice, then venerate the Holy Gospel and the image of our crucified Savior's hands and feet with kisses, and take our leave with a third low bow.
Painfully conscious of our sinfulness, yet cautiously daring to approach Christ's tomb because of our faith in the salvation which He achieved for us, we kiss His image depicted on His Shroud in gratitude and humility, knowing that He will arise as He predicted, and trusting in His promise to raise us with Himself.
At various times and places, the custom of keeping watch through the night, like the soldiers at Christ's tomb, has been followed in the parishes; there is a growing resurgence of this practice in the United States. While it might not be possible for all of us to remain in the temple for a whole night of prayer, keeping vigil at the Lord's tomb, we all can at least ‘keep watch for one hour' (MK 14:37).
Lord, You were born as one of us, and You died as one of us. As You shared our mortal life, make us worthy of Your promise to share Your immortal life with those who love You.
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