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Let No One Fear Death

~ by Sarah Roumas ~

On Lazarus Saturday, Orthodox Christians celebrate the day that Jesus raised his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead. This feast is a wonderful and fascinating day! It is celebrated on the day before Palm Sunday. Fasting is relaxed over the weekend, while we celebrate this great miracle and Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before beginning the intensity of Holy Week. If you’re lucky enough to hear the hymns of the weekday services, you can trace the whole biblical story during the sixth week of Lent. On Monday, Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus is dangerously sick. On Tuesday, Jesus decides not to go visit him. On Wednesday, Lazarus dies. On Thursday, he is buried. On Friday, Jesus finally reaches Lazarus’ home in Bethphage, and on Saturday he raises him from the dead. 

Lazarus Saturday is a very old feast. It was celebrated in Jerusalem by the fourth century—before the Church was celebrating Christmas, or Lent, or even Holy Week as we know it today. A little church had been built on the spot where Jesus met Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. On Lazarus Saturday the Christians met at that church, as many as could fit in crowding inside and the rest surrounding the church, for prayers and hymns. Lazarus’ raising was so popular that it was also celebrated in Jerusalem in January and, for a while, in September—but the feast on the day before Palm Sunday survived to this day. 

Today, Orthodox Christians sing the apolytikion Τὴν κοινὴν ἀνάστασιν (“O Christ God, when Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead”) on Lazarus Saturday and also on Palm Sunday. This is one of the oldest hymns in the Orthodox liturgical year. It was being sung in Jerusalem perhaps as early as the fifth century. Fifteen hundred years later, we are still singing these words. This hymn gives us one answer to the perennial question: Why did Jesus refuse to go visit his sick friend? Why did He let Lazarus die and then weep at his grave? Why didn’t He just heal him in the first place—He could have done so without even seeing him! The Fathers have given many answers to this question, but the apolytikion of the day gives us a very important one: Jesus wanted to raise Lazarus from the dead and to do it publicly to teach everyone who saw or heard about this miracle that He will raise everyone from the dead. Why would you believe that this son of a Jewish carpenter has the power to control the strongest force in the world, the force to which all humans will succumb? Here is his friend, dead four days and smelling in his tomb, now walking alive again among us. 

On Lazarus Saturday we see a preview of Jesus’ descent into Hades. Jesus does not even need to enter Lazarus’ tomb: He stands outside and calls “Lazarus, come out!” And His voice, as the hymns tell us, reaches all the way to Hades. To the astonishment and fright of Death itself, Lazarus obediently gets up and walks back into life. A week after Lazarus Saturday comes Holy Saturday, when we celebrate Jesus’ own death and descent among the dead. He liberates all those who have died, from Adam and Eve to the thief who died next to Him on the cross. On Pascha, He Himself rises from the dead. At every liturgy, we anticipate the final resurrection, when Jesus’ power over Death will be totally carried out. Lazarus Saturday ties together all these resurrections. It reminds us that, in the face of all sorrow, fear, and death, Jesus stands with us at the grave and weeps, and then raises His voice to end the power of death forever.

Sarah Roumas is delighted to join St. Raphael School. She received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University, a master of theological studies and a master of theology degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, and a Ph.D in liturgical theology from the University of Notre Dame. She studies the development of the Byzantine liturgical books and biblical interpretation in Byzantine hymns. Her dissertation was on the hymns of Lazarus Saturday in Greek manuscripts of the Triodion. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where she chants at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church and lives with her husband Nicholas and baby son, Anthony. sroumas.straphael@gmail.com

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