“Awesome and paradoxical is the mystery that we see unfolding today. He who is untouchable is now arrested. He who releases Adam from the curse is taken prisoner. He who searches and tries the hearts and minds is unjustly put on trial, and He who shut the Abyss is locked up in a prison. Before Pilate now stands He, before whom the hosts of heaven stand and tremble. The Fashioner is struck by the hand of one He fashioned. Condemned to a cross is He who judges the living and the dead. Enclosed in a tomb is the Destroyer of Hades. O Lord, You endure it all sympathetically, and You saved us all from the curse. O longsuffering Lord, glory to You!” – Great and Holy Friday Vespers
Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever! We have just finished celebrating Palm Sunday, our Lord’s glorious triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, in which He appears as a King coming to His throne. The irony is that Jesus’ throne is presented as the Cross. It is on the Cross that the Lord draws all people to Himself. That is where He is journeying, and we are journeying with Him. The Church moves us from the joy of Palm Sunday to the solemnity of Holy Week. We have so many opportunities to go to Church this week to experience this.
We should do everything we can to attend the beautiful services God grants us in Holy Week – the beautiful Presanctified Liturgies in the mornings of Holy Monday through Wednesday; the Bridegroom Matins starting tonight through Holy Tuesday; the Holy Unction service on Holy Wednesday; the Vesperal Liturgy celebrating the institution of the Eucharist Thursday morning; the Passion Gospels Matins service Thursday evening; the Royal Hours Friday morning; the Burial Vespers service Friday afternoon; the awesome Lamentations Matins Friday evening; and the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday. We are given every opportunity to experience and enter into our Lord’s journey to the Cross this week. Will we take advantage of it? Will we give up something in order to participate in the services and experience our Lord’s Passion with awe and contrition? Or will we make excuses for ourselves? Are we willing to sacrifice some time out of own busy schedules in order to worship the Holy Passion of Christ? The services of Holy Week build off of each other, climaxing on Great and Holy Pascha. In order to fully experience the joy of Pascha, we must enter into the Passion of our Lord by uniting ourselves to Him on His sacred journey in the divine services.
If we are to unite ourselves to Christ’s Passion, we must think upon it – meditate upon it, and stand in awe of it. For our Lord’s sacrifice for us is indeed an ineffable mystery, a mystery so great that even angels desire to look. For the Cross is the climax of our Lord’s ministry. It is the pinnacle of the Incarnation. It is the reason why our Lord came. St. John Chrysostom says,
“If He suffered this, then He suffered it not for His Own Sake, and nor for the sake of His Father, but rather that through the Cross mankind might be saved.”
Who can comprehend the depths of God’s love for humanity? Who can begin to understand the weight of our sin that placed our Lord on the Cross? What can we say O Christ, to glorify Thy Holy Passion? There are no words that can do justice to the magnitude of the sacrifice of the Cross. Yet in order to attempt to appreciate our Lord’s suffering for us, we must do our best.
Let us begin our meditation with a few words from Holy Scripture:
“He was wounded because of our lawlessness, and became sick because of our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him and by His stripes we are healed.” – Isaiah 53:5
“Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8
“The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” – I Corinthians 1:18
“He died for all, that they who live should not henceforth live for themselves, but for Him Who died for them, and rose again.” – II Corinthians 5:15
“And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” – Philippians 2:8
“Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood he entered in once into the Holy of Holies, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” – Hebrews 9:12
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God…” – 1 Peter 3:20
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2
In order to understand the significance of Christ’s passion, we also must see how Christ fulfills Old Testament antitypes as well. For example, Christ is our New Passover. The Passover lamb was sacrificed, God’s covenant people had the blood applied on their doors, and they ate the lamb. (Exodus 12) Jesus is portrayed as our New Passover Lamb in His sacrifice on the Cross, the application of His Blood on His Church for the washing away of sins, and the eating of the Lamb in the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus is also the fulfillment of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. In this rite, a goat was sacrificed and the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 23:26-32) and the scapegoat carried away Israel’s sins (Lev. 16:8-10, 20-22, 29-34). In the New Testament, when Jesus dies, the veil in the Temple is torn open, symbolizing Jesus’ entrance into the Holy of Holies to offer His Blood of behalf of the Church (Luke 23:44-46; Heb. 9:11-28). All of our sins are placed on Jesus at the Cross and He expiates them by His righteousness.
These are just a few of hundreds of references to Christ’s Holy Sacrifice in Scripture. Now let’s hear a few words from the Church Fathers on our Lord’s Passion:
“By means of a tree, we were made debtors to God. Likewise, by means of a tree [the cross], we can obtain the remission of our debt.” – St. Irenaeus (202 A.D.)
Fr. Sergius, 16th Abbott of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, says this about Christ’s sacrifice:
“It was in a garden and through a tree that man fell away from God; and it was in a garden and through the Tree of the Cross that God reconciled the creation to Himself, effectively healing mankind’s Fall.” – (Acquiring the Mind of Christ p. 136)
“The Cross, is wood which lifts us up and makes us great…The Cross uprooted us from the depths of evil and elevated us to the summit of virtue.” – St. John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
“Many indeed are the wondrous happenings of that time: God hanging from a Cross, the sun made dark, and again flaming out; for it was fitting that creation should mourn with its Creator. The Temple veil rent, blood and water flowing from His side: the one as from a man, the other as from What was above man; the earth was shaken, the rocks shattered because of the Rock; the dead arisen to bear witness of the final and universal resurrection of the dead. The happenings at the Sepulchre, and after the Sepulchre, who can fittingly recount them? Yet not one of them can be compared to the miracle of my salvation. A few drops of Blood renew the whole world, and do for all men what the rennet does for milk: joining and binding us together.” – St. Gregory the Theologian (329-390 A.D.)
St. John of Damascus (675-749 A.D.) has this beautiful reflection of the sacrifice of our Lord:
“By nothing else, except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low: the sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world, even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God, and we made children and heirs of God.”
“He died, but He vanquished death; in Himself He put an end to what we feared; He took it upon Himself and He vanquished it, as a mighty hunter He captures and slew the lion.” – St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.)
These are just a few of the many sayings of the Church Fathers on our Lord’s Passion. Suffice it to say that they too found themselves at a loss to express the inexpressible mystery of the Sacrifice of the Son of God. For we cannot but find ourselves in holy awe, fear, and trembling before our Lord on Great and Holy Friday. We cannot help but have silent contemplation being in the presence of our Lord’s Holy Passion. There are no words to describe all that was accomplished for us and for our salvation through the cross. It is the great mystery of our faith.
It would be good to meditate upon some of the hymns we pray on Great and Holy Friday as well.
Here are some verses from Great and Holy Friday Vespers:
“All creation was altered in awe, as it saw You hanging on a cross, O Christ. The sun went dark, and foundations of the earth shook. All things suffered with You who created all things. O Lord, who willingly endured it for us, glory to You!”
“Why do the impious and unlawful people meditate on vain things? Why did they condemn to death the One who is the life of all? Great is the marvel! The Creator of the world is delivered into the hands of lawless men, and the Friend of humanity is lifted up on a cross, in order to free the prisoners in Hades, who cry to Him, “Long-suffering Lord, glory to You!”
Today the Master of creation stands before Pilate; the Creator of all is delivered to be crucified; like a lamb, He is brought of His own will to the Cross. He is fixed with the nails, He is pierced in the side, and He sips from the sponge, He who caused the manna to rain down of old. The Redeemer of the world is smitten on the cheek. The Maker of all is mocked by His own servants. Such is the Master’s love for humanity! He prayed to His Father for those who crucified Him, and He said, “Forgive them this sin, for the lawless do not know what they are unjustly doing.”
You, who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, were taken down from the Cross by Joseph, with the help of Nicodemus. When he saw You dead, naked, and unburied, he took up a moving lamentation; and stricken with grief he said, “Alas, O sweetest Jesus! When the sun saw You hanging on the Cross just a little while ago, it wrapped itself in darkness; and out of fear the earth was quaking; and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. And now I see You voluntarily undergoing death for me. How am I to bury You, my God? Or how can I wrap You in a shroud? With what hands shall I touch Your immaculate body, or what songs should I be singing at Your departure, tender-loving Lord? I magnify Your Passion, and I extol Your burial and Your resurrection, as I cry out: O Lord, glory to You!”
Here are a few verses from the Great and Holy Friday Lamentations Matins:
“You change mortality through death; by means of burial You change corruption; for properly, as God, You make incorruptible and immortal that which You had assumed. For Your body saw no corruption; likewise, Your soul was not abandoned in Hades, O Master, extraordinarily”
“The Prophet Jonah was in the belly of the whale detained, but not retained. For, in that he prefigured You, the One who suffered and was buried, he sprang forth from the beast as from a bridal room, and he cried out to the guard of soldiers, “You, who are keeping watch and follow vanity and lies, have forsaken the mercy that was meant for you.”
“Adam’s failure resulted in death for humanity but not for God. For though the human nature of Your flesh had suffered at the Passion, yet Your divinity remained impassible. By Your resurrection, You transformed Your corruptible body to incorruption, and made it a source of life incorruptible.”
“Today, the sepulcher holds Him who holds creation in the palm of His hand, and a stone covers Him who covers the heavens with virtue. Life sleeps, and Hades trembles, and Adam is released from his bonds. Glory to Your dispensation, through which, when You had accomplished all, You gave us the eternal Sabbath rest, Your all-holy Resurrection from the dead.”
The hymns of Mother Church are so beautiful. They poetically communicate something that cannot simply be stated verbatim. It is suffice to say that “we must not just read about the Cross and the Crucifixion, but rather we must hold the remembrance of them ‘deeply in our hearts: the drown of thorns, the robe, the reed, the blows, the nails, the spitting, and the mockery.’” – Fr. Sergius Bowyer (Acquiring the Mind of Christ p. 138)
The crucifixion of Christ is a great mystery. It is a mystery never to be fully comprehended into all eternity, yet must always be worshipped and put at the forefront of our minds in the spiritual life.
There is so much to meditate upon when we think of our Lord’s Passion. We can never give thanks enough for all He has done for us. It is most humbling to think that our Lord went through so much for our salvation. We can truly say with the Apostle Paul that “the Son of God…loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
I close with a beautiful homily of St. John of Kronstadt on Great and Holy Friday from the book “Season of Repentance: Lenten Homilies of Saint John of Kronstadt.”
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself (John 12:32). That is, if I am lifted up on the cross, then through My sufferings on the cross I will redeem the whole world, and through the power of My cross I will draw unto Me many chosen ones. This is what our Lord Jesus Christ said not long before He suffered for us. Oh, Christ, our love! And once again I say, oh Christ, our love! To what end did Your love for us lead You! You were spat on, beaten, wounded, and died in unspeakable sufferings on the cross. Oh, Christ, our love! How strongly You loved us!
Your sufferings for the world were great, without measure, but so much infinitely greater were the fruits of Your suffering: by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). You accepted sufferings to free us from the passions. You accepted the crown of thorns so that our hearts would no longer be tormented miserably, as with prickly and burning needles, by the thorns of sins. You accepted wounds, so that repentant sinners would take shelter in Your wounds from the arrows of heavenly wrath, You suffered on the cross to give it to us as a powerful weapon against our invisible enemies, who strongly fight again us. Finally, You accepted the brutal torments of the cross in order to save Your faithful servants from the most cruel, unceasing torments of hell. The goal of doing this was a single one, to draw us to You and unite us with Your for eternity.” (Season of Repentance p. 184-5)
May we never take the grace of our Lord’s Passion for granted. May we always live our lives in light of what He did for us, so that we may repent of our sins, be united to Him in obedience to His commandments, and thereby arrive at the eternal joy of Pascha in His heavenly Kingdom! “We adore Thee O Christ, and we bless Thee, because by Thy holy cross, Thou hast redeemed the world!” Amen.
For further reading:
Season of Repentance: Lenten Homilies by St. John of Kronstadt
Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption Vol. 1: The Incarnation by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Acquiring the Mind of Christ: Embracing the Vision of the Orthodox Church by Fr. Sergius Bowyer
The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas
Meditations for Holy Week by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou
On the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by St. Philaret of Chernigov