Palm Sunday: The Entrance
The Saturday of Lazarus from the liturgical point of view is the pre-feast of Palm Sunday – the Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem. Both feasts have a common theme; triumph and victory. Saturday reveals the Enemy, which is Death. Palm Sunday announces the meaning of victory as the triumph of the Kingdom of God, as the acceptance by the world of its only King, Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus the solemn entrance in the Holy City was the only visible triumph. Up to that day, He consistently rejected all attempts to glorify Him. But six days before the Passover, He not only accepted to be glorified, He Himself provoked and arranged this glorification by doing what the prophet Zacharias announced: “behold, Thy King cometh unto thee… lowly and riding upon an ass.. “(Zac. 9:9). He made it clear the He wanted to be acclaimed and acknowledged as the Messiah, the King and the Redeemer of Israel. The Gospel narratives stress all these Messianic features; the Palms, the cry from the crowd of “Hosannah”, the acclamation of Jesus as the Son of David and the King of Israel. The history of Israel is now coming to its end, such is the meaning of this event, for the purpose of that history was to announce and to prepare the Kingdom of God, the advent of the Messiah. And now it is fulfilled. For the King enters His Holy City and in Him all prophecies, all expectations find their fulfillment. He inaugurates His Kingdom. The Liturgy of Palm Sunday commemorates this event. With palm branches in our hands, we identify ourselves with the people of Jerusalem, together with them we greet the lowly King, singing Hosannah to Him. But what is the meaning of this today for us?
Citizenship in the Kingdom: First, it is our confession of Christ as our King and Lord. We forget so often that the Kingdom of God has already been inaugurated and that on the day of our Baptism we were made citizens of it and promised to put our loyalty to it above all other loyalties. We must remember that for a few hours Christ was indeed King on earth in this world of ours, for a few hours only and in one city. But as in Lazarus we have recognized the image of each man, in this one city we acknowledge the mystical centre of the world and indeed of the whole of creation. For such is the biblical meaning of Jerusalem, the focal point of the whole history of salvation and redemption, the holy city of God’s advent. Therefore, the Kingdom inaugurated in Jerusalem is a universal Kingdom, embracing in its perspective all men and the totality of creation. For a few hours – yet these were the decisive time, the ultimate hour of Jesus, the hour of fulfillment by God, of all His promises, of all His decisions. It came at the end of the entire process of preparation revealed in the Bible: it was the end of all that God did for men. And thus this short hour of Christ’s earthly triumph acquires an eternal meaning. It introduces the reality of the Kingdom into our time, into all hours, makes this Kingdom the meaning of time and its ultimate goal. The Kingdom was revealed in this world – from that hour – its presence judges and transforms human history. And at the most solemn moment of our liturgical celebration, when we receive from the Priest a palm branch, we renew our oath to our King and confess His Kingdom as the ultimate meaning and content of our life. We confess that everything in our life and in the world belongs to Christ, nothing can be taken away from its sole real Owner, for there is no area of life in which He is not to rule, to save and to redeem. We proclaim the universal and total responsibility of the Church for human history and uphold her universal mission.
The Way of the Cross: We, know however, that the King whom the Jews acclaimed then, and whom we acclaim today, is on His way to Golgotha, to the Cross and to the grave, we know that this short triumph is but the prologue of His sacrifice. The branches in our hands signify, therefore, our readiness and willingness to follow Him on this sacrificial way and our acceptance of sacrifice and self-denial as the only royal way to the Kingdom. And finally these branches, this celebration, proclaim our faith in the final victory of Christ. His Kingdom is yet hidden and the world ignores it. It lives as if the decisive event had not taken place, as if God had not died on the Cross and Man in Him was not risen from the dead. But we, Orthodox Christians, believe in the coming of the Kingdom in which God will be all in all and Christ the only King. In our liturgical celebrations we remember events of the past. But the whole meaning and power of Liturgy is that it transforms remembrance into reality. On Palm Sunday this reality is our own involvement in, our responsibility to, the Kingdom of God. Christ does not enter into Jerusalem and more. He did it once and for all. And He does not need any “symbols,” for He did not die on the Cross that we may eternally “symbolize” His life. He wants from us a real acceptance of the Kingdom which He brought to us … and, if we are not ready to stand by the solemn oath, which we renew every year on Palm Sunday, if we do not mean to make the Kingdom of God the measure of our whole life, meaningless is our commemoration and vain the branches we take home from the Church.
Saturday of the Resurrection of Lazarus
The joy that permeates and enlightens the service of Lazarus Saturday stresses one major theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. “Hades” is the Biblical term for Death and its universal power, for inescapable darkness that swallows all life and with its shadow poisons the whole world. But now — with Lazarus’ resurrection — “death begins to tremble.” A decisive duel between Life and Death begins giving us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. Already in the fourth century Lazarus’ Saturday was called the “announcement of Pascha.” For, indeed, it announces and anticipates the wonderful light and peace of the next — The Great — Saturday, the day of life-giving Tomb.
Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, personifies the whole of mankind and also each man, as Bethany — the home of Lazarus, — stands for the whole world — the home of man. For each man was created as a friend of God and was called to this friendship: the knowledge of God, the communion with Him, the sharing of life with Him: “in Him was Life and the Life was the light of men” (John 1:4). And yet this Friend, whom Jesus loves, whom He has created in love, is destroyed, annihilated by a power which God has not created: death. In His own world, the fruit of His love, wisdom and beauty, God encounters a power that destroys His work and annihilates His design. The world is but lamentation and sorrow, complaint and revolt. How is this possible? How did this happen? These are the questions implied in John’s slow and detailed narrative of Jesus’ progression towards the grave of His friend. And once there, Jesus wept, says the Gospel (John 11:35). Why did He weep if He knew that moments later He would call Lazarus back to life? Byzantine hymnographers fail to grasp the true meaning of these tears. “As man Thou weepest, and as God Thou raisest the one in the grave…” They arrange the actions of Christ according to His two natures: the Divine and the human. But the Orthodox Church teaches that all the actions of Christ are both Divine and human, are actions of the one and same person, the Incarnate Son of God. He who weeps is not only man but also God, and He who calls Lazarus out of the grave is not God alone but also man. And He weeps because He contemplates the miserable state of the world, created by God, and the miserable state of man, the king of creation… “It stinketh,” say the Jews trying to prevent Jesus from approaching the corpse, and this “it stinketh” can be applied to the whole of creation. God is Life and He called the man into this Divine reality of life and “he stinketh.” At the grave of Lazarus Jesus encounters Death — the power of sin and destruction, of hatred and despair. He meets the enemy of God. And we who follow Him are now introduced into the very heart of this hour of Jesus, the hour, which He so often mentioned. The forthcoming darkness of the Cross, its necessity, its universal meaning, all this is given in the shortest verse of the Gospel — “and Jesus wept.”
We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus and had pity on him, that He had the power of restoring life to him. The power of Resurrection is not a Divine “power in itself’,” but the power of love, or rather, love as power. God is Love, and it is love that creates life; it is love that weeps at the grave and it is, therefore, love that restores life… This is the meaning of these Divine tears. They are tears of love and, therefore, in them is the power of life. Love, which is the foundation of life and its source, is at work again recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the real beginning of both: the Cross, as the supreme sacrifice of love, and the Common Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.
“Christ — the Joy, Truth, Light and the Life of all and the resurrection of the world, in His love appeared to those on earth and was the image of Resurrection, granting to all Divine forgiveness.”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann (The Christian Way, 1961)
Link to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast on “Lazarus Saturday” : http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/lazarus_saturday