Audio length: 14:10 minutes
Fr. Gregory at the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday.
The Old Testament readings for this evening’s Liturgy all call us to meditate on the deliverance and protection of the people of God. The Exodus narrative celebrating God’s liberation of His People from oppressive slavery in Egypt, the deliverance of Jonah from his perilous entombment in the great fish and the protection of the 3 youths in the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar are three examples of this deliverance and protection. Some may puzzle as to why these readings are appointed with others of similar vein on this eve of the Resurrection. They are read because they are anticipatory “types” of the resurrection. Now “types” here does not have the usual sense of common speech … a classification of objects or conditions, such as in different blood types or personality types. Types or typology in sacred texts refers to events or persons in the past connecting to a fuller realisation in the future. A “type” therefore anticipates a fulfilment. It is not hard to see, why the Church should use so much typology in her worship, for in so doing she celebrates the fulfilment in Christ of all that has anticipated Him in the Old Testament. Let us look now at these three types of the resurrection. First, the Exodus.
I am sure that we are all familiar with the Exodus story, the account of how God enabled His People to escape from bitter bondage and oppression in Egypt to freedom and prosperity in the Promised Land. This great act of deliverance was made manifest in many startling ways: the blood of the lintel that preserved the Hebrews from the angel of death, the passage through the waters of the Reed Sea (probably the marsh lands of the lower Nile, not the Red Sea itself) and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptians. Beyond this point and into the desert we hear of God’s provision for His People both physical and spiritual, from the Manna, the Heavenly Bread that fell from heaven, the Covenant mediated by Moses and Joshua’s campaign into Canaan. No Christian hearing this story can fail to sense anticipations of what was to come in Christ the Messiah. The lintel blood in the sacrifice of the Cross, the waters in Baptism, the Passover and Manna in the Eucharist, the Covenant in the Church. In these types the coming resurrection holds the whole drama together. Freedom in life is incomplete if it is not matched by freedom from death, the final enemy of mankind and creation alike. Every Pascha is a celebration of humanity’s final Exodus from death but this is only realised when people seek it and receive it through repentance.
What then of Jonah, entombed in the belly of the great fish? How is this a type of the resurrection? Well, the clue perhaps is in the prayer that Jonah offers up to God in his distress. He doesn’t simply ask for help to be released from his predicament. He interprets his entombment spiritually. In a sense he creates a theological type both out of and for his own condition. He digs deeper into the experience and tries to see it from within the perspective of his own relationship with God. This is a short extract from the prayer.
The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple. (Jonah 2:5-7)
It is round about the time of the writing of the Prophecy of Jonah that the Jews came to have stronger expectation of and belief in the resurrection. Maybe this was occasioned by multiple experiences of adversity through foreign invasion and the eventual collapse of society that these stresses brought about. Only a people who have experienced “the pit” know what it is to cry out to God to be delivered from that pit. Such was Jonah. He knew death and immobility in that great piscine belly. He cried out to God as the only One who could deliver him from death, both physical and spiritual. No wonder that the Church now sees Jonah’s prayer of faith and experience of new life as a type of the resurrection.
Finally what of the three Holy Youths who were preserved from the fire in the furnace? … the furnace that is of persecution and of potential martyrdom. In many ways this story is very similar to that of Jonah but there are a few extra elements and these mainly concern the loyalty to God that is required of all those who suffer for his Name. Not just loyalty though but again in the context of faith, joy and confidence in the Lord’s protection. Remember that it is the Song of the Three Holy Youths that marks the transition for us liturgically from death to resurrection. It is at this point in the Liturgy that the hangings and vestments are changed from mournful and subdued purple to a joyful and bright white and gold, from death to life. The Three Holy Youths were preserved but even if they had not been they would have still sung in that dreadful place. This, then, is true resurrection … the joy that comes from a fearless embrace of death because death has been undone, overturned, destroyed by Christ’s glorious resurrection from the dead. This is why the martyrs both in the apostolic era and since have sung hymns of victory as they were dragged into the arena to their deaths by the teeth of wild beasts. It is why our faith is invincible because God in us is invincible. As He lives and cannot die so shall we and no man, political system, or external threat can take that away from us. But, we must endure to the end and not lose our souls to death by a lukewarm attitude towards Christ which so easily slips into a paralysing and deadly coldness. The redeemed on the other hand, those who shout Alleluia, are progressively warmed by God in their faith and this is a fire that cannot be quenched and against which the fires of tyrants can do nothing. So let us sing with the Three Holy Youths:-
“Blessed art thou, O Lord God of our fathers: and to be praised and exalted above all for ever. And blessed is thy glorious and holy name: and to be praised and exalted above all for ever. Blessed art thou in the temple of thy holy glory: and to be praised and glorified above all for ever. Blessed art thou that beholdest the depths, and sittest upon the cherubim: and to be praised and exalted above all for ever. Blessed art thou on the glorious throne of thy kingdom: and to be praised and glorified above all for ever. Blessed art thou in the firmament of heaven: and above ail to be praised and glorified for ever.”