Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Body Entombed: Holy Saturday 2017

I imagine it was a clear night, Jesus’ sightline to the heavens not blocked by clouds, but illuminated by the twinkling stars and the brilliance of the moon. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to his Father…prayed that his coming death could somehow be avoided.  He prayed so intensely that blood came from his pores like the sweat of someone laboring in the field.  But, setting aside his desires, he prayed that the will of the Father would be accomplished.  In that garden, his body still intact, still emboldened by the breath in his lungs and the conviction in his heart…in that garden his body was full of life, active in prayer and intercession.

But in another garden, days later, a different story is told.  I imagine it was a clear night then too…but this time, nobody looked towards the heavens.  For in this garden tomb, the dead body of Jesus lain still, spent from the horrors of the cross.  This time, the stars and the moon fixed their gaze upon their Lord and Master.  Perhaps their light was dimmed, as all of creation mourned the death of the Son of God.  In that garden, his body annihilated, all breath having left his lungs…in that garden, his body was lifeless, a victim of horror and suffering.

But, sight can be deceiving.  For in his stillness, in his lifelessness, in his death…Jesus was still working for the salvation of the world.  And to illuminate the significance of Holy Saturday, I offer you this ancient sermon written by St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus in the late 4th century:

“Something strange is happening - there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him, “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by My own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the Life of the dead. Rise up, work of My hands, you who were created in My image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the [Jewish leaders] in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden. See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in My image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in Paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but I will enthrone you in Heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am Life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The Bridal Chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

My friends, these words from St. Epiphanius remind us that, even in the midst of death and horror, God is active.  God is working.  We are not abandoned, for God is always stirring something up, even when we cannot see what it is.

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