Homily for the Great Vespers of the Descent from the Cross
Holy and Great Friday
Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church
Jamaica, New York
April 30, 2020
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
We have arrived at this very painful moment in Holy Week, when we behold with our eyes, and hear with our ears, the effects of hatred, envy, greed and every kind of sin. We behold the Lord, in the Service we call Ἀποκαθήλωσις – the Descent from the Cross – without the breath of life.
In this mystery of God’s death in the flesh, we see the ultimate humiliation of the Creator of the universe for our sake. He dies, so that we may live.
The grim and agonizing work of taking down the Lord from His Cross was accomplished by Joseph of Arimathea and by Nikodemos. Both of them were prominent in the Judean community – Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, but they were both secret disciples of the Lord.
They were not like the Eleven, for now that Judas was dead by his own hand, there were no longer Twelve Disciples of the Lord. Joseph came forward when the hour was darkest, even begging Pilate for the Body of the Lord. For it says, in the Gospel of Saint Mark:
As the evening was fast approaching, since it was Friday (the Day of Preparation), Joseph of Arimathea, an honorable member of the Sanhedrin, who eagerly expected the Kingdom of God, boldly went to see Pilate to beg for the body of Jesus. Pilate was amazed that Jesus had died so soon and summoned the centurion, asking him if He was dead. And after he was informed by the centurion, the Body was given to Joseph. [*]
What must Joseph have been thinking at that moment? He was the hidden disciple, who had avoided associating with the Lord in public. Was he afraid? Worried about his position? His reputation?
Now, he is exposed to the most powerful man in Palestine, who has ordered the execution of his beloved Rabbi, Jesus. Now, everyone will know that he was one of the Lord’s followers. The Disciples, fearing for their lives, are in hiding.
But Joseph, who was hidden, is now revealed as a man of courage and boldness. Joseph is revealed as a loving parent, for he buried Jesus in his own tomb.
Joseph is revealed as greater than the Lord’s adopted father, Joseph. The Betrothed of the Theotokos was a carpenter; he hammered nails into wood. With fear and trembling, Joseph of Arimathea pulled the Son of Man’s hands and feet from the nails hammered into the Wood of the Cross.
And Joseph is revealed as a supreme mystic of the age to come, for he was granted to cover the nakedness of the Lord, Who covered our sins with His love, His mercy and His divine forgiveness.
Today, my beloved Christians, we are called to be Joseph of Arimathea for our Lord, Whose divine eyes have closed in death. The Lord bowed His holy head before His death – not after – to show us that it was His will to die for us. [†] For as Saint Symeon the Metaphrast observes in his Holy Friday Homily:
Others bow their heads in death, but not before they give up the spirit. But You, Lord, bowed Your head, commanding death to come; only then did You give over Your spirit. [‡]
We are called to be unafraid in the face of death – even the death of someone dear to us. We are called to stand in faith against all despair. And we are called to be a parent to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
We like to think of ourselves as children of God, and so we are. But today, just this once, let us be parents to our Lord, and join with Joseph – as we chant … σινδὀνι καθαρᾷεἰλήσας καὶ άρώμασιν, έν μνήματι καινῷ κηδεύσας ἀπέθετο. Let us wrap the Lord in the clean shroud of our repentance, and lay Him in the new tomb of our hearts.
If we do so, we shall surely greet the Lord at His Empty Tomb on the glorious morning of the Resurrection! So be it. Amen. Καλή Ἀνάσταση!