The Epitaphion

translated from the French by O. Dunlop

We are seized with fear and trembling and arrested by a respectful silence before this great mystery: the Death of Christ God. No words, no prayer, no funeral hymn is worthy to celebrate the Lord. And we, like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, we approach the holy tomb and venerate with love this unfathomable mystery:

Be amazed, O heavens!
Be shaken, O foundations of the earth! Behold, He that dwells in the highest is numbered among the dead and sheltered in a lowly tomb (irmos, ode 8)

Like the angels and heavenly hosts, we tremble at Christ's descent into the tomb:

In a tomb they laid Thee, O Christ the Life. The angelic hosts were overcome with awe, and glorified Thy condescension. The veil of the Temple was torn at Thy crucifixion, and the lights of heaven hid their radiance, when Thou, the Sun, wast hidden in the earth (the Praises, I.1 II.7)

On this Holy and Great Friday, the whole Church sings together, following in the footsteps of Joseph and Nicodemus as they bury the most precious body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Then on Friday evening, inspired by sombre hymns set to solemn music in minor tones, we respectfully approach Christ in the tomb. These hymns allow us to contemplate the divine mystery without ever revealing or unveiling it fully, for it remains inaccessible to the human spirit. This is the meaning of the embroidered cloth which surrounds the epitaphion, guarding the secret of God's death. In the Russian Orthodox Church, the Lord's face is covered by the chalice cloth, for even the angels do not dare to contemplate Christ in the tomb.

The prayers sung at this service touch upon several themes. Let us listen to some passages which convey the meaning of these three days in the tomb.

The tomb where Christ rests becomes the source of life:

In accordance with the law of the dead, the Life of all accepts burial in the tomb, and the tomb becomes the source of resurrection, unto the salvation of us who sing: "Blessed art Thou, O God, our Redeemer!" (ode 7)

Christ has buried our human nature with Him in the tomb, so that our corruptible nature might be made incorruptible. He has assumed our mortality so as to grant us His immortality.

It is right to magnify Thee, O Creator of all. We are freed from passion through Thy Passion, and delivered from corruption. (the Praises, II.2).

Christ in the tomb seems to sleep like Adam, during the time of Eve's creation:

...Thy side was pierced. By this hast Thou, the new Adam, accomplished the restoration of Eve. Thou didst fall into a sleep surpassing nature and renewing nature, and, as the all-powerful One, Thou didst raise up life from sleep and corruption (ode 5).

The Lord Jesus' resting in the sepulchre corresponds to God's resting on the seventh day of creation. Christ in the tomb is the completion of the Sabbath, for by His Death He has recreated the universe and completed the divine labour:

Thou has sanctified this, the seventh day, which of Thou didst bless by rest from work; for Thou dost bring all things into being and renew them. O my Savour, while resting and reviving on the Sabbath (ode 4).

The Sabbath of the Mosaic Law is brought to fruition in Christ's flesh:

The great Moses mystically fore-shadowed this day when he said: "God blessed the seventh day". This is the Blessed Sabbath; this is the day of rest, on which the Only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works. By suffering death to fulfil the plan salvation, He kept the Sabbath in the flesh; by returning again to what He was, He has granted us eternal life through His Resurrection... (glory verse, Lord I Call and Praises).

Theme of the Sabbath becomes central as daybreak nears. The holy women who bring aromatic spices to the tomb already have a presentiment of the glory to which this unique and incomparable Sabbath leads the passage from death to life, from night to an eternal dawn, the transition from the seventh to the eighth day, which marks the beginning of a new creation. That is why this refrain of the myrrhbearing women is repeated many times:

This is the most blessed Sabbath on which Christ has fallen asleep to rise on the third day.

The Resurrection shines forth from the very depths of death with a mysterious and peaceful light. Even before the radiant night of Pascha, in the depths of the tomb, the hymns of the Fathers allow us to foresee the victory over death, the descent into hell, and the illumination of the prisoners of darkness:

Hell rules the race of mortal men, but not eternally: for when Thou wast placed in the grave, O Powerful One, Thou didst tear asunder the bars of death by Thy life-creating hand and didst proclaim true deliverance to those sleeping there from the ages, since Thou, O Saviour, hast become the firstborn of the dead (ode 6; "The firstbom from the dead" (Col 1:18): words repeated by Saint Basil in his Eucharistic canon).

Hell begins to lose its power even before the full victory which will be proclaimed with such brilliance on Easter night; we begin to feel its grsap weakened, its power destroyed, yts strenghth crumbling:

Hell was wounded in heart when it received Him whose side was pierced by a spear, and it groans, consumed by divine fire... (ode 7).

In agony, hell cries out in distress:

Today hell cries out groaning:
"My dominion has shattered. I received a dead man as one of the dead, but against Him I could not prevail. From eternity I had ruled the dead, but behold, He raises all. Because of Him do I perish".
Glory to Thy Cross and Resurrection,
O Lord! (verse on Lord I Call)

No one saw Christ emerge from the tomb, no one witnessed the Resurrection, no human narrative can recount this event which overthrew the natural laws of death. The Gospels remain silent on the moment of the Resurrection itself.

Christ's descent into hell (mentioned in I Pet 3:19 and in Phil 2:10), and the encounter of the holy women with the angel at the tomb as told in the Gospel narrative, are the only images, the only icons, through which the Church allows us to approach the mystery of the Resurrection. Similarly, the Church describes Christ's emergence from the tomb only through references to Scripture, through images taken from the Old Testament, including Jonah and the psalms:

Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale. He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial. Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber... (irmos, ode 6).

At the end of the orthros on Holy Saturday, we hear these verses from he psalms which are proclaimed loudly before the reading of the Epistle.

Let God arise! Let His enemies be scattered!
Let those who hate Him flee from before His face!

The Gospel which is read after the singing of the psalm tells us that a guard had been placed before the tomb and that the stone had been sealed (Mt 27:62-66). All possible human precautions had been taken, but in vain: we leave he church with the certain assurance that the prophecy contained in the psalms, 'Let God arise", will be fulfilled and that Life cannot be imprisoned by death.

The liturgy of Holy Saturday once again takes up this prophetic exclamation of the psalms:

Arise, O God, judge the earth, For to Thee belong all the nations.

It is the custom among Russians to change the priest's and deacons' vestments, the altar cloth and the cloths around the icons while this prokeimenon is being sung. Everything that has been purple or black since the beginning of Lent becomes white and luminous to symbolise the Resurrection. In the Greek tradition, the priest throws laurel leaves as a sign of victory. By these concrete and material gestures our churches proclaim that Easter is already accomplished.

After the singing of the prokeimenon, the Royal Doors are opened wide, showing the altar blazing with light, and the first of the Easter Gospels is read, recounting how the holy women heard the announcement of the Resurrection from the angel and then met the living Christ, who is risen from the dead (Mt 28:1-20). Like the myrrhbearing women, the faithful hear the announcement of the Good News from the angels and wait in silence for the night so that they may acclaim it with joy and gladness.

Until midnight, the church, which has been decorated for the feast, remains in semidarkness, with all the candles unlit. For the last time, the choir repeats the hymns of the Passion sung on HolyFriday, while the priest carries the epitaphion from the nave to the altar. The Liturgy will be celebrated on this icon-epitaphion throughout the period of Easter; the altar symbolises the tomb of Christ, and that is why the epitaphion is placed on top of it. This reminds us that from the tomb comes life, for through the Eucharist which is celebrated here we partake of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

Following the Jerusalem tradition, the priest then hands the Easter candle, lit from the vigil lamp on the alter, to the faithful, chanting:

Come receive light from the unwaning Light. And glorify Christ Who is risen from the dead.

The light is passed from person to person, and then, while the celebrants leave the altar in procession, the people sing:

Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savour, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth, to glorify Thee in purity of heart.

In this hymn, we ask the angles to prepare us for the celebration of this luminous feast.

Now Christians will finally proclaim the risen Christ to the whole world. That is why the Gospel of the Resurrection (Mk 16:1-8) is read outside, before the church doors. After the reading the priest intones the following hymn which is taken up by the whole congregation:

Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs, bestowing Life!

This shout of triumph will be repeated ceaselessly during the forty days of Pascha.

The Resurrection

At dawn on the day after the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, some of the women who followed Christ - Mary Magdalene. Mary "the mother of James", Salome. Joanna, and "the other women" came to Jesus' tomb to bang aromatic spices, that is perfumes, for the body of the deceased, as was the custom of the Jews.

They saw that the big rock which had blocked the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away and that the tomb was empty. None of them had seen Jesus coming out of the tomb. Only later accounts, not of apostolic origin and therefore not recognised by the Church - they are called apocryphal gospels - describe Jesus coming out of the tomb. The true Gospels, the "canonical Gospels", respect the mystery the Lord's Resurrection, just as thy respect the mystery of His birth. No one knows how the Lord cure out of the tomb, just as no one knows how Jesus could have teen born of a virgin. We only know that when the women came to the tomb, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Only several hours later would Jesus show Himself to His disciples.

Mary Magdalene, one of the women who came to the tomb, immediately went to tell Peter and John, who came running to the tomb. John the author of this Gospel account, arrived first, for he was the young«r, but did not dare enter into the tomb without Peter. Peter "went into the bomb; he saw linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen cloths 'but rolled up in a place by itself" (Jn.20:6-7). Then John entered. The disciples returned home very pensive, but John had already guessed the truth, as he himself tells us.

Jesus' enemies will not dispute the fact that the tomb was empty; Matthew tells us that they bribed the guards, who were also witnesses of the event but who could not understand its significance, to say that Jesus' body had been stolen by His disciples. This legend would become widespread among the Jews, thus paradoxically confirming the reality of the empty tomb. It would actually have been much easier to contest the fact of the Resurrection by showing a closed tomb than by trying to find an explanation for an empty one.

from The Orthodox Messenger,
published bi-monthly by the SA Central Youth

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