What better way to a make fresh start with my blog and podcast in this first week of summer, than to tackle a commentary on the hymns for the Resurrection in tone one? (I want to offer my apologies for unceremoniously ghosting on you all for almost 11 months: I have had health concerns since late summer last year, but am much better now. To those of you who are personal friends, or who heard of my situation through the grapevine, thanks for your prayers!)
Our resurrectional troparion and kontakion for this second Sunday after Pentecost contain both difficulties and riches. As is the purpose of this blog-series, we will look especially to the Old Testament, as a lamp that sheds light upon our questions. For Old Testament and New Testament are in a symbiotic relationship, and our Orthodox hymns reflect this unity. Let’s listen to these hymns together, for they complement each other.
When the stone had been sealed by the Jews,
while the soldiers were guarding Thine undefiled body,
Thou didst rise on the third day, O Savior,
granting life to the world.
The powers of heaven therefore cried to Thee, O Giver of Life:
“Glory to Thy Resurrection, O Christ!
Glory to Thy Kingdom!
Glory to Thy dispensation O thou who alone lovest mankind!
As God, Thou didst rise from the tomb in glory,
Raising the world with Thyself.
Human nature praises Thee as God, for death has vanished.
Adam exults [or, dances] O Master!
Eve rejoices, for she is freed from bondage and cries to Thee:
“Thou art the Giver of Resurrection to all, O Christ!”
Let’s tackle first the thorny issue of “the Jews.” Recently, some Christian communities have removed any such general reference from their prayers and hymnody, in sensitivity to the horrors of the Holocaust and the ongoing anti-Judaism that we see around us. Orthodox liturgy remains unchanged, though some have called for alteration to the wording of our services during Holy Week, reminding the faithful that the disciples, the Theotokos, and Jesus were “Jews” too! It is important to remember that the term “Jews” (in the Greek Ioudaioi), referred most particularly to those who lived in Judaea, or whose families came from there, and who were loyal to the Jerusalem Temple, the Torah, the One LORD of that Temple and Law, and His promise of a holy land for His people. The Greek term comes into its own during what is called the “Second Temple” Period. We see it especially in the later writings of the Old Testament, and in the classical writers Josephus and Philo, who contrasted Jews and Judaism with Hellenes and Hellenism. It is difficult to know how best to express this group in English today: the problem in translating the Greek is that if we use “Judaean,” we imply only an ethnic group, but if we use “Jew,” the term is so imprecise that it can be misunderstood. Probably, we should stick with “Jew,” but learn more exactly what is meant by the term in the Bible and in our hymnody.
This issue is particularly difficult today, after twenty centuries of various associations being attached to the words “Jew” and “Jewish,” some of them derogatory. But in the OT books where the terms are used, they indicate intersecting groups of Hebrew origin which held to certain beliefs about the true God, behaved in observable ways, and had a religious homeland—Jews all across the world prayed for the “peace of Jerusalem,” as the Psalm 122 (121 LXX) reminds us. Jews or Judaeans used the terms of themselves, and they were used by Gentiles for them.
In the New Testament, the words are used particularly in the fourth gospel of John, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in some of the letters of St. Paul. These books record the beginning of the separation of the ways between those who followed Christ as Messiah, and those who continued to cleave to Torah as the center of the faith. And mostly, when we see the term “the Jews” being used in these books, the reference is to the leaders of the Jewish people—either to the cultic leaders, the Sadducees, or to those who were emerging as the theological leaders, the Pharisees. It was, of course, the Pharisees (as well as the Christians) who would survive the first century, after the Temple was destroyed. In terms of context and formation Jesus and his apostles were “Jews” too— circumcized, worshipping in the Temple, reading the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative, and so on. To those Gentiles on the outside, they would have been considered, in those early days, just another sect of Judaism. But the new-born faith of the Christians was centered upon Jesus, not on the Temple nor on the Torah in itself. And so early, they named themselves “Christians,” leaving the term “Jews” to those who did not see in Jesus what they did. The term was one of distinction, not of hatred—for their earliest leaders had come from that context, as had the Scriptures, which pointed to their LORD. And the apostle Paul led in the way of praying that they would come to faith.
According to our first hymn, on that holy Saturday, the stone was sealed by “the Jews”—in this case, by the Sadducees, the religious authorities of the Sanhedrin, in concert with their rivals, the more populist group known as the Pharisees. Despite their disagreements over the Hebrew faith, they agreed on one thing– the dangerousness of Jesus! With the agreement of Herod, St. Matthew’s gospel tells us, they sealed the tomb and set a guard. So competing Jews and Gentiles came together for a purpose—and they were all in for a surprise!
For Jesus’ body was unlike any other that had been entombed or guarded: it remained “all pure,” “immaculate,” literally “undefiled,” or “incorrupt.” Of course, the body of the God-Man could not be harmed by the normal process of death. He was, after all, the very Giver of life, as the angelic powers declare in this hymn! What the Jewish suppressors of the Jesus-movement sought to contain within the tomb was impossible to hide. For on the third day, he “granted life to the world.” This little phrase in our hymn is a surprise. One of the Jewish prophets, Hosea, had given a promise concerning the third day. Here it is:
Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD; his going forth is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hos 6:1-3)
The prophet then goes on to lament that both Israel in the north, and Judah in the south, have become defiled. Notice that the state of God’s people is in complete contrast to that of Jesus, the one who showed what an Israelite should be, and who, though He had died, remained undefiled and was, all unseen, in the process of conquering death. It is to the wayward people of God that Hosea urges a conversion, or return, so that healing can take place. And on the third day “he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” The LORD’s “going forth” is as sure as the dawn—and so He was seen, having come out of the tomb and the realm of the dead, by his creation.
Our troparion says that the angelic powers saw his coming forth, and cried out in praise. Our kontakion reminds us of how Adam exulted, or danced, like David before the Ark—for someone greater than the Ark was here. And Eve also rejoiced, freed from chains and bondage by the LORD who came to bring resurrection to ALL. It is this universal promise of the resurrection that is so astonishing. We perhaps have become blasé about it, for we hear it frequently. But, in the time of Hosea, the Gentiles were “not God’s people”, and the call was for Israel and Judah to return, so that they could be healed. Hosea’s prophecy was met and surpassed by the resurrection itself. On the third day, the mighty power of the LORD was seen, indeed like showers and spring rains that “water the earth”—the WHOLE earth, for death has been removed. As the Kontakion rejoices, He raised “the world” together with Himself:
As God Thou didst arise from the tomb in glory,
and Thou didst raise the world together with Thyself…
death has vanished.
And Adam dances, O Master,
and Eve, now freed from fetters,
rejoices as she cries out:
“Thou art He, O Christ, who grantest unto all resurrection.”
As we contemplate all of this (what happened in history as men and women recognized Jesus to be the true center of the faith, how the prophets foretold what God would do, but did not see the full extent of it, how even the angelic hosts and our primal ancestors rejoiced at the dawn of the Resurrection) we are led to be amazed. With the angels, we may aptly adore the One who, according to the Troparion, is the only true or full Lover of humankind. It is this One who has arranged everything for our sake, that we might become a single household under Him. With the angels wonder at God’s divine “dispensation” or oikonomia, at His management of all things for us! He has joined heaven and earth, male and female, God and man together. It is no longer only the angels who cry, “holy, holy, holy!” but we do, as well, for we have seen Him in our earthly context! These hymns remind us of the enormity of His salvation, seen in actions that encompass everything and everyone that He has made. He is the LORD and Lover of all!