Homily for the Divine Liturgy of the First Resurrection
The Vespers of Holy and Great Saturday
Saint John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Tenafly, New Jersey
May 1, 2021
Beloved in Christ,
Today, we gather in the deep silence of this Sabbath of Sabbaths, in which the Lord rests in His Divine Flesh within the Tomb. Now, we keep watch, in eager expectation of the triumph to come.
We observe silence and interior stillness in the presence of this profound mystery, the Sabbath of Rest, of our Lord in the Tomb. The Church is muted and even in some, no lights are on, except on the Holy Altar.
At the same time, we can feel our hearts racing, as we know the Lord of Glory is harrowing Hell itself! He is breaking down the everlasting gates of the prison of death, and despoiling the shadowland of the dead.
That is why, in the midst of our Liturgy, we cry aloud:
Ἀνάστα, ὁ Θεός, κρῖνον τὴν γῆν, ὅτι σὺ κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἔθνεσι!
Arise, O God; judge the earth, for You shall have an inheritance in all the Nations! [*]
And as we chant this cry of victory and petition, we scatter the triumphant signs of the Lord’s conquest of death and Hades. For the leaves of the laurel were used to crown the champions of Ancient Greece, and still exists even today in the modern Olympics. The laurel crown now surpasses the Crown of Thorns, just as life ultimately overcomes death.
We sing out: “Arise O God,” because we know that our Lord Jesus has journeyed in His Human soul to the netherworld in order to preach the glad tidings redemption. As the Apostle Peter says:
For Christ also died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison. [†]
We even hear in ancient Christian apocryphal texts that John the Baptist – who was beheaded for preaching truth to power – continued to preach in the prisons of Hell to all who would listen. [‡]
Though on the surface, the grave of the Lord is quiet, even peaceful on this Holy Saturday, and guarded by the soldiers, deep in the bowels of the underworld, there is much commotion.
For the Lord descended into Hell in His human soul, but He did not go to remain there. He went to liberate the captives, all those who had died from the beginning of time, from the start of the human race. He descended to death, so that we could rise to life, and to life eternal!
Therefore, my beloved Christians, we cry out: “Arise O God!”
It is a plea and an affirmation of what we know will be the only end of the Lord’s Crucifixion, Death and Burial. As King David prophesied:
“For You will not abandon My soul in Hadës, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” [§]
It is inevitable; it is inexorable. There is no stopping the Lord rising from the tomb. The stone may have been sealed, but it cannot hold Him. The guards may be posted, but they cannot stop Him.
The Lord Jesus Christ will rise on the Third Day, just as He prophesied of Himself, when He said to the Judeans:
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [**]
These words were met with incredulity and derision, for they thought Jesus was speaking of the Temple in Jerusalem, but as the Evangelist states:
“He was speaking of the temple of His body. [††]
And the Lord says, “I will raise it up!” No one raises Him. He raises Himself, because He is the God of All.
And so we cry: “Ἀνάστα ὁ Θεός! Arise O God!” We shout out in faith, in hope and in love, for the One Who will raise us up as well, when He comes to judge the living and the dead.