Every so often I’m brought up short by the profundity that lives in Byzantine hymnography. Amidst the poetic hyperbole and grandiloquence, deep truths and observations are nestled like gems. As I was rehearsing the choir for the Wednesday presanctified liturgy of the sixth week of Lent, three lines presented themselves as worthy of note, which I pointed out to the choir so we could be attentive in singing them.
They concern the death and raising of Lazarus, which Byzantine liturgical historicism marks daily throughout the week as it approaches the Saturday of the raising of Lazarus. Byzantine devotion sees in the raising of Lazarus a foretaste of the messianic victory to come by the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. In this first hymn, the announcement of coming destruction is made to death itself in the Lazarus’ raising. This presages the rich hymnographic reflections made on Holy Saturday, patterned on the magisterial konakion of St. Romanos in which Satan and Death converse about the Passion of Christ, with Death lamenting his destruction because of it.
Tone 5 (from the Triodion, by Joseph)
When Jesus was walking in the flesh beyond the River Jordan,
He said to His companions:
“My friend Lazarus is already dead and buried,
but I rejoice for your sake, my friends.
By his death you will learn that I know all, for I am God,
even though I appear by nature as a man.
Let us go and give life to him,
so that death may truly know my victory
and the total destruction I shall make of it,//
as I grant to the world my great mercy!”
In the next sticheron, we are encouraged to follow the example of Mary and Martha (contemplation and action – which St. Andrew of Crete in his Great Canon allegorizes from the figures of Rachel and Leah in the Old Testament). In this stich, our “minds,” the center of our intellect and will, are admonished to be offered to God so that they may be raised from the death of “no fear of God” and no “vital energy.” Their sloth is even unknown to themselves.
Interestingly enough, our minds are “unaware.” For Byzantine spirituality, the center of God-inspired knowledge is the heart, from which the life of God deifies our whole person, including our minds. Also, our “vital energy” is meant to be enlivened by God’s energy – His uncreated grace which enlightens and sanctifies, and which was our meditation on the second Lenten Sunday.
Let us imitate Mary and Martha, O faithful!
Let us offer divine deeds to the Lord as intercessors,
so that when He comes He may raise up our minds,
for now they lie dead and feel no fear of God.
They are deprived of all vital energy,
unaware of their own inaction.
Let us cry: “O Lord, Who once had compassion on Your friend Lazarus,
and raised him up by Your awesome presence and authority,
so now give life to us all,//
and grant to us Your great mercy!”
Notice, by the way, the hymns’ author, Joseph, who was a 9th-c. monastic of the monastery of Studios and wrote hymns in the conflict of the icons.
Theodore was an earlier contemporary of Joseph and abbot of the Studite monastery. He reflects on the raising of Lazarus in cosmic terms: Lazarus’ raising is not only an announcement of the victory to come, but Lazarus himself is the prefigurement of the universal resurrection:
Tone 6 (from the Triodion, by Theodore)
Now Lazarus has been in the tomb two days,
seeing the dead of all the ages,
beholding strange sights of terror:
countless multitudes bound by the chains of hell.
His sisters weep bitterly as they gaze at his tomb,
but Christ is coming to bring His friend to life,
to implement in this one man His plan for all.//
Blessed are You, O Savior! Have mercy on us!
Notice the “strange sights of terror.” A unique (?) aspect of Byzantine devotional reflection is the dynamic take on Christ’s sojourn among the dead “bound in chains” in Hades/Sheol/Hell and His leading them forth to Paradise. The images of this sacred “myth” (not legend or fiction but myth – concrete expressions of spiritual realities in story form) are drawn from the Gospel of Nicodemus, poeticized in the hymns of St. Ephraim, filtered in St. Romanos, and focused in the Palestinian and Byzantine hymnographers, especially St. John of Damascus. This sacred myth of Jesus’ bodily entering the cavernous dark of Death as Light and destroying it and thence leading out the “souls” of the righteous (or all, depending on who is contemplating it) is acted out liturgically in Orthodox churches on Pascha night.
Another hymn from the Lazarus Saturday cycle, from vespers, presents the image of Christ’s voice resounding through Hades to call Lazarus forth, who must be let go by Death at the divine command. But Lazarus is not going to the New Life, but the old one from where he will die again. But the command of Jesus the Messiah over Death is made manifest.
I remember as a child the preacher at my church often making the point that if Jesus had not said, “in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!,’ but merely, “Come forth!,” all the dead would have raised.
What a thought.
Liturgical texts for this service represent modified versions of translations provided by Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, Otego, New York and St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pa. The Department of Liturgical Music and Translations of the Orthodox Church in America expresses its gratitude to Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery and St. Tikhon’s Monastery and to those translators whose work has been consulted at times in the course of reviewing and modifying these texts to their present form: Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), Archimandrite Juvenaly, Father Benedict Churchill, Isaac Lambertson, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and Holy Transfiguration Monastery, among others.