In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters, did you hear in the readings – those fifteen beautiful readings – did you hear of the resurrection? Did you hear of faith? Did you hear of things that seemed to be impossible and yet became possible?
How was it that if God promised to Abraham that He would make him a father of many nations, and he was an old man, and he had a boy, Isaac — that if God told him to kill his son Isaac, how can he become a father of many nations? But Abraham obeyed when God said, “Sacrifice thy son Isaac.” And even when his son in innocence, asked, “Father, we have the fire and the wood, but where is the ram for the burnt offering?” he said, “God will provide, my son.”
What about when the widow gave hospitality to Elias? This was during the drought that Elias had called upon the earth. People were dying because there was no food. The widow had just a little food left, and Elias said, “Make me a meal first, and then you and your son shall eat, and the cruse of oil shall never run out.” And indeed, it did not during that entire time. But her son died, and Elias prayed, and her son was raised.
An even more poignant example is when Elisseus came to the Sidonian woman. The Sidonian woman had made him a place to stay because she knew that he was a holy man. He, desiring to give her something good, asked her what she would need, and she, out of modesty, would not tell him, so Gezi his servant (who later on turned out to have a sin, a problem in his life — this was a good turn that he did and may the Lord save him for this thing) said that the woman was old and had not a son. So a son was born according to the promise of Elisseus. And not too long thereafter, the son gets a headache in the fields, goes to his mother, lays his head between her knees and dies.
So what does this woman do? Does this woman tear out her hair and start screaming and wailing, as is the custom of peoples of that area to mourn their dead? No. It doesn't’t even say that she told her husband. She brought the boy up to where the holy man stayed, put him on the bed, and saddled an ass, and went to see the holy man on Mount Carmel. An impossible thing she was wanting – something she could not even express with her lips. She couldn’t even say “Raise my son from the dead.” She could only say, “I told you not to deal deceitfully with me.”
So Elisseus came. Did you listen carefully; do you see what he did? He went up into the room, and he made the sign of the cross on the boy! His hands to his hands, his feet to his feet, his lips to his lips – what was he doing? Making the sign of the cross on the boy, and breathing on him – and it took seven times, and the boy was raised. Impossible things!
What about when the Egyptians, a huge amount of heavily armed, very well trained soldiers, warred against a ragtag group who had no arms – perhaps a few sickles, a few axes, a few clubs, nothing much to speak of – and were running away from Egypt being pursued by this army? The Lord made a wall of waters, so that the people of Israel could go through the Red Sea. And when the Egyptians, in their arrogance, came into the Red Sea and the wall of waters was still there, the Lord made the wall of waters crash upon them, and horse and rider fell into the red sea. Do you think any Jew, at that moment, when they came to the Red Sea, before the wall of waters; do you think any one of them really thought that they were going to be victorious? They probably thought all was lost. And if you read carefully Exodus and Deuteronomy, you can see that constantly they doubted the Lord. They tormented poor Moses, and yet the Lord saved them.
An impossibility became possible. Elias raises a son, Elisseus raises a son, the people of God are saved from their pursuer – impossibilities become possible because of our Lord. Now how is it that if such things happen and we have such an array of witnesses about us, as the Apostle talks about in Hebrews, how is it that we live such mediocre lives? Why don’t we believe? The resurrection is available to all of us. The power of the resurrection, sure belief, is available to all of us.
How is it that we can attain this understanding? The Apostle Paul tells us how. He says, “Know you not that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore, we are buried with Him by baptism into death, that as like Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, that we should also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
What does this mean? What is the likeness of His death? What kind of death did Christ die?
I’m not talking about how He was executed. That He was put on a cross is immaterial. The Cross has become our symbol of victory, but it could have been some other form of punishment that would become our symbol of victory. The Cross itself — although it was prefigured by the prophets and therefore we know it should be the Cross — is not the likeness of His death.
Jesus Christ lived in a way that He gave Himself to the world. He did not live for Himself, but He lived for others. Actually, to be more precise, He lived for One Other. He lived to do the will of His Father. And His Father’s will was that He would become incarnate, He Who had been in the bosom of the Father from the ages of ages, and would walk upon the earth and be an example for others and die a terrible death so that we would live. That is the likeness of His death. It is obedience and righteousness.
The reason why the world does not understand the resurrection – even those who say they are Christians – is that they don’t understand that in order to understand the resurrection you have to live it. You have to live like the One Who was resurrected first. You have to live in His likeness. You have to die like He died. Now, He did not have to die to self, because His whole self was willing to do the deed. His whole self was willing to obey His Father.
Now our self, on the other hand, many times is not willing to obey God. Stubborn. Obdurate. I was just reading Deuteronomy recently, and I thought, “Things have not changed very much” – we are just like those chosen people, who continually complained, and continually were faithless. And they didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand the greatness of God because of their selfishness.
The key to understanding Christ, the key to being empowered, brothers and sisters, the key to happiness, the key to what God wants us to be, to the fulfillment of our destiny, of what God has predestined us to be, is to live in the likeness of His death. And I say live in the likeness of His death, because He is not dead anymore. He was dead for only a short while, and then He was alive. Now we, we can become alive by living as He lived.
If you struggle to follow virtue, then you will understand about the resurrection. It will enlighten you. That is the key. This is the key. This is why we read this epistle on this day. Because all of the pomp, and all of the beauty, and the rose petals – and the Lord knows, I love the rose petals; the Lord knows, I love all of the beauty of Holy Saturday: the flowers, and the festivity later on, with the foods, the Kulich, the sausages, the Pascha, the eggs, and all the rest, and all the joy and all the feasting – all of that cannot be understood in such a way that brings real joy to the heart — joy that, as our Savior said to His apostles just before He was killed, no one can take away from you, that kind of joy, the kind of joy that cannot be stolen, cannot be lost, is ever with us, never dissipates — that kind of joy can only be had if we live as He lived and if we live in the likeness of His death, and therefore the likeness of His resurrection.
All these things are possible. The Sidonian woman’s son dies, and yet he was risen. Abraham was told he would be a father of many nations, and yet he was told to kill his son, but he believed still, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Do you have anything in your life that you have trouble believing? Don’t despair—the key to believing is not in trying to force yourself to believe this thing. When you have doubts, you cannot force yourself to undo your doubts. We’re temporal creatures, we believe this way, that way, and we’re like a reed blowing in the wind.
The way to no longer have doubts, the way to be able to have power and strength, to live according to the resurrection in its power, is to strive to become righteous, to desire to be pure, to desire to put off all sin – even the difficult ones. Even if you continue to fall, if you desire to live righteously, the Lord not only will forgive you of your sins, but much more than that, He will give you joy, joy which cannot be taken away, joy which ever abides in your heart. And He will give you, with that joy, certainty. How many things in this life are certain? None of us are certain that we will live another hour! If your souls strives to become righteous, to live as Christ lived, God will give you certainty about Himself and the resurrection. And the key is trying to live righteously.
What a blessed day this is! For us still, the Lord is in the tomb, but we know what is occurring right now; We read about it last night.
He went down to Hades, having been preceded by His good messenger, John, and He destroyed the hold that death had over us. Not for only those who were before Christ went down into Hades when they died – that is not the only extent to which death has a hold over us. Even now to this day, death has a hold over people who do not believe in Christ, or who believe in Christ only weakly. And they live as though dead. He made us able to live as though completely alive, completely pure, completely happy, complete in all things, lacking nothing!
What a joy it is to be a Christian! Is there any greater name that a man can have than to be called a Christian? I mean a true Christian – not a Christian in name, not a Christian by patrimony, not a Christian by coming to Church, but a Christian by living righteously and knowing that God will help him with whatever is amiss.
Glory be to God! Glory be to God that we can live! Brothers and sisters, the key, I say again, you must live as if you were baptized into the death of Jesus. The way He died – with humility, with long-suffering, with forgiveness – this is the way which you must die. And your dying will be occurring for the rest of your natural, human life – that is, on the earth.
Live by dying. The world thinks, “We don’t understand what he is talking about.” But Christians understand. And as you die a little, then you feel more alive. Glory be to God that we can live. Amen.
Priest Seraphim Holland
Fifteen Old Testament readings are read at Vespers on Holy Saturday: Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 60:1-16; Exodus 12:1-11; Jonah 1:1-4:11; Joshua 5:10-15; Exodus 13:20-15:19; Zephaniah 3:8-15; 3 Kings (1 Kings) 18:8-24; Isaiah 61:10-62:5; Genesis 22:1-18; Isaiah 61:1-9; 4 Kings (2 Kings) 4:8-37; Isaiah 63:11-64:5; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Daniel 3:1-23.
There is a tradition of scattering rose petals, and sometimes bay leaves, around the church on Holy Saturday, while the choir sings “Arise, O God” and the vestments are changed from black to white in honor of the resurrection. After the priest has changed his vestments, he comes out of the altar with a basket full of rose petals and scatters them on the tomb and around the whole church. The faithful have the custom of picking up and keeping some of the petals as a blessing.
In the sermon of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus for Holy Saturday, read before the tomb after the Lamentations Matins.