On April 17, 2020, Holy Friday, His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon prayed the Vespers of Holy Friday, at which we commemorate the Burial of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, at the Monastery of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. At the conclusion of the service, His Beatitude offered these words to the faithful.
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today, we gather around the throne of God, to honor in silence the King who rests upon that throne, as was spoken by the Prophet Habakkuk: The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him (Habakkuk 2:20). Having witnessed all which preceded this moment: the crown of thorns, the purple of mockery, the spitting and the scourging, the nails, the spear and the Cross, we now behold the Lord of all and the Creator of the Universe lying in the tomb, and we can do nothing other than stand with the same silence within which the women stood by the Cross.
We stand in outward silence but our minds are filled with thoughts and our hearts marvel at this wonder: How did the Lord come to this point? For what purpose did He endure such sufferings? How could it be that His pure hands and feet were pierced with nails, and His precious body lifted upon the Cross, to die a shameful death? And as we ponder this we wonder: if Christ, as immortal God and perfect Man, endured such things, what hope is there for us, fallen mortals who are subject to corruption, to suffering and to death? How can we make sense of our own life and death, if we cannot fathom the life and death of the Son of God?
Truly, it is not ours to understand the mystery that is revealed before us. Tomorrow, we will sing: “Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and in fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly-minded.” But today, we have already entered into that silence, not for the sake of an outward quiet, but so as to find the stillness of heart that will enable us to experience the present mystery not as a defeat but as a victory: the victory of light over darkness, of truth over falsehood, of life over death.
The Lord could have brought about our salvation in any way He chose, for as God, all things are possible to Him, but He chose to save us with justice rather than with power. The Enemy of mankind relies on authority and power, and it is through these that he treacherously led mankind to death and continues to tyrannize us. In order to overthrow the tyranny of death and corruption, and at the same time to grant us the gift of eternal life, the Lord voluntarily took upon Himself human nature by His Incarnation.
He became man, not as the old man was, but as the New Adam, so that we all might be sanctified through Him. He became man, not born of seed, but born of the Virgin, so that He might become the author of new life for us. He became man and was baptized, thus revealing the grace of the Holy Trinity and allowing everyone who receives that baptism to likewise receive divine regeneration. He lived a holy life of obedience and love to reveal His divine perfection to us and, beyond this, to call us to that same perfection. He humbled himself even unto death to show us that it was possible, by God’s grace, for human nature to overcome death and be united eternally with God.
Christ had no need to suffer and to die upon the Cross, since He was sinless and perfect, and yet He voluntarily chose to die, so that His unjust death might become the means of overcoming the death that justly afflicted us. His death became a condemnation of death because his death was not the result of disobedience and sin. And because of this, “His death [becomes] our life.” As we sang in the Beatitudes last evening:
For my sake Thou wast crucified, to become for me a fountain of forgiveness. Thy side was pierced, that Thou mightest pour upon me streams of life. Thou wast transfixed with nails, that through the depth of Thy sufferings, I might know with certainty the height of Thy power, and cry to Thee, O Christ the Giver of Life: O Saviour, glory to Thy Cross and Passion. (Beatitudes for Holy Friday)
And so, for us to know with certainty the height of the Lord’s glory, we too must pass through the depth of His sufferings. Because He suffered voluntarily, His suffering becomes our release from suffering, and a way for us to bear the suffering that afflicts us, as the Holy Apostle Paul writes: For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to help those that are tempted (Hebrew 2:18).
We know so well how we are tempted: We try to become aware of our own passions and yet we more easily condemn the passions of others; we long for purity of the heart and yet find ourselves drawn to impurity of the mind; we struggle to show love and yet more often give in to anger and irritation; we strive for perfection and yet drag ourselves down with guilt when we fail to attain it; we overlook the darkness in our own hearts and then turn and judge others for trifles; we wait eagerly for friend or family member to ask for our forgiveness and yet delay in asking for theirs; we demand love and respect from others and then respond with bitterness and anger when we do not receive it.
Our sins and passions are like the grave-clothes that bound Lazarus and like the tie that held the hair of the sinful woman. The first was loosed by the voice of Christ and the second herself loosed her hair to wipe the feet of Christ, reminding us that both the grace of God and our own effort are needed if we are to allow the Crucified and Buried Lord to help us, who are so tempted, to taste of the immortal life which He is now proclaiming to those in Hades.
Once more, we are brought back to the silence of the present day, when the noise of all that has gone before has died away: the shouting crowds have been appeased, the questioning rulers have gone on to other things, and even the disciples themselves have fled away. Throughout the tumultuous recent events, only a few friends remained faithful to the very small request of the Lord: that they watch and pray for one hour. These few friends, by their silent faithfulness, reveal to us what we ought to learn from the present mystery, for they remained faithful through their offering of repentance, humility and love.
The good thief was a friend who watched with repentance. He said only a few words, but those few words revealed the depth of his contrition, and with that contrition, in one moment, he “stole paradise.” If we could have his repentance, and humbly cry to the Lord in our weakness: “Remember us, O Lord, in Thy kingdom,” then we too, even for a brief moment, might taste of Paradise as we struggle to bend our passionate energy towards that which is pure and true.
Joseph of Arimathea was a friend who watched with humility for he bore the shame of asking for the body of a Stranger whom the whole world had abandoned. And for his humility, he was given the gift of wrapping in fine linen and anointing with spices the body of that Stranger who was a stranger to corruption. And if we would wrap our Lord in the linen of prayer, and anoint him with myrrh through our acts of charity and words of kindness, then we too could taste of heavenly consolation which gives us the boldness to approach the Lord of Glory.
The Mother of God was a friend who watched with love. A sword pierced her heart as she beheld her own Lamb led to the slaughter, nevertheless she did not fail in her love but cried: “I cannot bear to see Thee crucified. Hasten and arise that I too may behold Thy resurrection on the third day.” And if we would seek after this love which the Blessed Mother showed to her Only Son, then our sorrow would indeed be turned to joy, as a mother’s sorrow is turned to joy at the birth of her child.
By the offering of their repentance, their humility and their love, these friends received, in return, the grace of beholding the first rays of the Risen Son of God. And as we stand in silence around the tomb of Christ, we too can perceive the rays of that light, for already the Lord is descending into hades, to release those held captive there and to reveal to us in the most powerful way that He is present even there. For just as the earth cannot remain dark when the created sun begins to shine upon it, so it is that even hell and death cannot withstand the uncreated Light and Life of Christ. And if mighty hell and mighty death are so powerless before that Light and Life, how much more so will the hell and the darkness that are in our own hearts disperse before the One whose love was so great that He laid down his life for his friends?
Therefore, if until this moment we have not watched and prayed, let us watch and pray now. If we have allowed pain and sorrow to overcome us, let us weep over our sins and await forgiveness. If despair and the fear death darken our hearts, let us look to the Life of all who lies dead before us, and yet is not dead. Let us endure the sufferings of our life with patience and humility, so that we may receive comfort and joy from above. Let us bear our cross with longsuffering and meekness, so that He Who bore the heaviest Cross of all may strengthen us with His grace. Let us make our heart a tomb, wherein Christ may dwell eternally, so that the darkness of the passions may be forever dispersed by the Light of Christ. And let us look with expectancy to the glorious day of resurrection when we will sing with joy the Paschal hymn:
Yesterday, O Christ, I was buried with Thee,
And today I rise again with Thee in Thy rising.
Yesterday I was crucified with Thee,
Now glorify me O Savior, in Thy Kingdom.
To Him be all glory, honor and worship, together with His Father, Who is from everlasting, and the most-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.