Ezekiel 7, Jeremiah 7, Psalm 125 (MT 126)
A demolition is not usually an occasion for joy. The summer before I turned eleven, I stared forlornly out the kitchen window with my mom onto what had been my haven since moving into our new house: an abandoned and perfectly wonderful apple orchard. That past year I had explored every nook and cranny of the orchard, and taken to disappearing up a large tree with an appropriately wide and flat branch, to read for hours in it, Anne-of-Green-Gables style. But our new house and the orchard were in an area under new ownership, and everything was being reclaimed for the building of houses. What had been the Henry Farm was now a suburban subdivision. We wept, as the ploughs did their work, and for days the odor of the burning stumps wafted to our nostrils, like apple cider. All the years of the orchardist’s labor up in smoke!
But some demolitions are longed for—the Berlin wall, the invisible barrier between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14), and especially the dominion of Death. Both of the resurrectional hymns in the seventh tone celebrate the end of Death, or Hades:
Destroying death by your Cross,
You opened Paradise to the thief.
You reversed the lamentation of the Myrrh-bearers,
Bidding your Apostles to proclaim that You arose,
O Christ God,
Granting to the world the great Mercy
(Apolytikion/Troparion in the seventh tone)
No longer will the dominion of death be able to hold its captives;
For Christ has descended, demolishing and destroying its powers.
Hades is bound; the Prophets in symphony rejoice, saying:
A Savior has come for those who are in the faith.
Come forth, you faithful, for the Resurrection!
(Kontakion in the seventh tone)
You can see how these hymns celebrate the destruction of death, its dominion, and its powers! The “binding” of Hades points forward, indeed, to death of Death, as we read in the book of Revelation: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). I am reminded of the poignant poem by John Donne, who exulted:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me…
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
The English poet was sure of this, not because of simply wishful thinking, but because of the great triumph of Christ, whose victory we celebrate each Lord’s day. Just as most demolitions occur to make way for a new building, we also know that the divine demolition has prepared our world for something new—Paradise has been opened, lamentation has been turned to joy, and the dead in body and spirit have heard the words of good news, “Come forth!” As is often the case, we can more fully understand these new promises by means of God’s older words to us, found in the Old Testament.
First, we need to reflect on how amazing it is that Christ “opened paradise to the thief.” There are several words in the Bible for thief, but the one used here is not the word used simply for a common pick-pocket or house-breaker. Rather, it is a word used for violent robbery, banditry, and insurrection. Both the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah speak of such “robbers” or “thieves” in terms of violent men who profane the Temple: In Ezekiel 7:22, the prophet has been warning of a dreaded future time when God will punish His people for their arrogance and blasphemy. At that time, God warns, He will “turn his face” from them, and violent Gentiles will “profane the temple, with violent men, or robbers, entering and profaning it.” This happened, of course, when the temple was sacked, both in the time of the Babylonians, and in the time of the Romans after the great Jewish War of the seventies in the first century AD. For the pious Jew, such a scenario was a sign of great dishonor, as God’s Holy Place was desecrated by those who had no right to its glories.
Again, the prophet Jeremiah uses the same language to talk about the hypocrisy of God’s people, who honored the Temple only with their lips. They thought that merely having the Temple in their land meant that God, like a mascot, was there to preserve them in every circumstance. But all the time in their daily lives they were dishonoring the poor among the people of God, secretly breaking the commandments, and even committing idolatry. To them, the prophet declares God’s words as he stands by the gate of the Temple, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer 7:11). Jesus, of course, quotes this prophetic rebuke when He “cleanses” the Temple and overturns the tables of those who were preventing Gentiles from worshipping, because of the clutter of buying and selling in the outer courts, the only place the Gentiles were allowed to go.
So, then, the word “robber” or “thief” is used by the prophets both to refer to violent Gentiles who abuse God’s house, and to deceptively violent Jewish leaders who worshipped God with their lips while behaving like rebels or insurrectionists in other ways. The word is a loaded term, evoking violence, secrecy, and dishonesty. Such are the thieves on each side of Jesus —probably Jewish insurrectionists who were stirring up the population against the Romans, engaging in acts of terrorism, and taking God’s work of liberation into their own ruffian hands. The one thief who curses and mocks Jesus while dying shows forth the kind of behavior that we might expect from such rebels who had lost faith in God to protect His own. But the other thief sees the truth, and to him, Paradise is opened! Reflect upon how miraculous this is: a man who was on a trajectory of violence is turned and shares in the victory of Jesus over death, even while he is dying with Him. “Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom!” That humble cry is heard and answered.
And there is a second great reversal in these hymns, as well. Jesus’ destruction of Death means the transformation of the women’s lament into joy. The picture is of them being turned around, or having their minds changed. We may think of St. Mary Magdalene in the garden, who did not recognize Jesus, but who was “turned,” St. John tells us, “and saw Jesus standing” (John 20:14). The “turning” and the vision of the resurrected Jesus coincide!
Psalm 125 (MT 126) provides us with the classic example of those whose joy is unbounded because their fortunes had been restored. It was sung by the Jewish pilgrims as they came within sight of Jerusalem, and it commemorated the time when God made a way for the exiles in Babylon to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the city:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those enraptured.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the Gentiles, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb!
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
There is a difference in nuance in the first verse of the psalm, between the Hebrew text, which says “we were like those who dreamt” and the Greek, which says “we were like those consoled, or strengthened. (In the Greek, the word is “those who are paracleted.” Father Patrick Reardon reminds us of the deep work of the divine Consoler, the Paraclete, the One called alongside, the Holy Spirit, whose work not only “strengthens” but also “enraptures” us, filling us with joy and new life. I have adopted here his translation, which retains some of the Hebrew sense of “dreaming” with joy—it’s too good to be true!—and the Greek sense of consolation. We are like those “enraptured!” This sense of it being “too good to be true” can be seen in the astonished disciples’ response to the risen Christ (Luke 24:41), when they “disbelieved for joy,” and also in St. Paul’s assurance that what God’s power can do more than we can ever “ask or conceive” (Eph 3:20).
He is the God of unexpected reversals—opening Paradise to the thief, turning the weeping of the women into joy! Our gospel in itself is good news of the great revolution. There are numerous verses in the Old Testament psalter that imply the inability of the dead to praise God. For example, there is the rhetorical question, “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? (Psalm 87/88:10). And then there is also the outright statement, “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.” (Psalm 114/115:17). Of course, when these Psalms were composed, the people of God had not yet seen the resurrection of Jesus, the great reversal. Christ would be the One to show definitively that the faithful are not dead, but sleeping in the hand of God, who is the “I AM”, the existing One, the God of the living and not of the dead. The most knowledgeable of God’s ancient people looked forward, with the prophet Daniel, to the Day of Resurrection. The prophets saw some of what God would do, glimpsing it from afar. But they did not know all the marvelous effects that would be brought forward into our world with the raising of the God-Man, and the outpouring of the resurrection life. Upon them, and upon us, the end of the ages has already come in Jesus, though we await its completion. (We may think of icons of the resurrection, as the prophets greet Jesus, who is extending His hand to take them out of Hades!)
And so, like the ancient Israelites looking back on the return from exile, we look back to the resurrection of our older Brother and LORD, Jesus, knowing that this means glory for all who are “in the faith.” We who are in the faith have glimpsed His glory on Holy Saturday; like Lazarus, we have already heard the word “come forth.” As our kontakion puts it, “the Prophets in symphony rejoice, saying: “A Savior hath come for those who are in the faith. Come forth, you faithful, for the Resurrection!”
This work of “coming forth” and being rebuilt is not simply something that we anticipate in the day of resurrection. Already the Paraclete is among us, edifying, or building us up, and making something new of each of us, and all of us together. Indeed, part of His work is breaking down those things that stand in the way. C. S. Lewis reminds us of the challenge that we may face as God does His unexpected work in us:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
He intends to live in us and among us! And so, in these hymns, we celebrate the Life-giver’s great glory, and how He has overturned our situation by His mighty acts. As we sing them, we put on the identity of the thief (the sinful one to whom Paradise was opened), the myrrh-bearing mourners (whose sorrow was turned to joy), and Lazarus (the dead one who was made alive, and called out of the tomb). For the One who is the Resurrection and the Life is also “the Great Mercy” who has come to be with us, that we might come to be with Him.