Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. (I Corinthians 15:12-14)
But now, Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. (I Corinthians 15:20-22)
These words from the Apostle Paul beautifully underscore the centrality of the resurrection in the Orthodox Christian faith. We Orthodox Christians affirm our belief and give personal testimony, like St. Paul, each time we profess our faith with the words of the Nicene Creed. We rejoice on Pascha as we sing: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” We believe firmly that the first-fruits of the Old Testament given in offering to God are a promise of later fruits. (Exodus 23:16) In the same way, the Resurrection of Jesus is a first-fruit offering to God, a promise for all believers that we will be later fruit. (I Corinthians 15:23)
Lazarus Saturday is a unique liturgical affirmation of this centrality. Lazarus Saturday is the only time, outside of Sunday, that we Orthodox celebrate what can be called a resurrectional service. We shout on this day that Christ Jesus has raised Lazarus, confirming “the universal resurrection of mankind,” even before His own passion, death, and resurrection. From the Troparion of the Feast we sing:
Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God!
Like the children with branches of victory, we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
The Evil One has given his best shot, but the message is now clear: as Lazarus is called forth from his tomb, the Devil’s best was not good enough to stand against the Love of God. On this day, Hades surely trembles as it anticipates the risen Lord descending into its very depths.
On Lazarus Saturday, the Great Fast has ended and the Great and Holy Week has not yet begun. We are given a brief respite, a time for renewal, before the solemnity and intensity of the holy days ahead and the future joy of hearing “Christ is risen!” It has been said that the Fathers placed this feast at this point in the liturgical calendar because it “… serves as a necessary ‘rest’ and ‘transition’ between the rigors of the Fast and the awesome and saving events of Holy Week. For in truth, yesterday evening’s Vespers not only ended the Holy Forty Days, but also ushered us into a joyous resurrectional prelude that will eventually lead to our Savior’s Passion.”[i]
The feast day has a clear foundation in the life of the Early Church. The Spanish nun Egeria, who kept an extensive diary noting liturgical practices as she traveled in the Levant and Jerusalem between 381–384 AD, records that Lazarus Saturday was a joyful celebration in the life of the Church. It was the last day of instruction for catechumens who were preparing for Christian initiation rites.[ii]
In addition to Lazarus, there are two other occasions in the New Testament where a person is restored to life by the Lord. (Often, the word “resuscitation” is used in commentaries to make the distinction between those who will “die again” and resurrection which ends death, “trampling down death by death.”)St. Mark records the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43), and in St. Luke’s Gospel we read of the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain. (Luke 7:11-17) In the first of these stories, we see Jesus touch the little girl and we hear Him speak in Aramaic: “Talitha, cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”In the raising of the widow’s son, the boy himself is not touched by Christ; only his coffin is. From the story of Jarius’ daughter to the story of the widow’s son, we see a progression from Jesus physically touching a child to only needing to touch a coffin in order to raise the dead. The calling of Lazarus from his tomb requires no touch at all. The voice of the Lord is sufficient and all of creation hears Him say: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the command: “Loose him, and let him go.” Lazarus comes forth in his shroud, unlike the Lord who leaves the shroud behind, as Lazarus will someday need his burial clothes again.
The concept of resurrection is not limited to the pages of the New Testament. Our Christian belief in the resurrection stems from Judaism itself. For Jews, Hades, a place of shades, is a kind of “holding pen” where contact with the living and God Himself is suspended. (Psalm 6:5) Some Old Testament figures, such as Enoch and Elijah, are simply “taken up” to heaven, avoiding Hades and death altogether. Traditionally, many Christian commentators have interpreted these events from this side of the Resurrection as prophecies of what is to come, looking forward to the general resurrection when as we read in John’s Gospel: “… for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”(John 5:28-29)
Orthodox Christian believers see Hades bound as Christ takes the hand of Adam in the icon of the Anastasis, (“Resurrection”). This powerful, personal encounter with the Resurrected Lord is what gives the Church its firm foundation—a foundation upon which the Canon of New Testament Scripture and the Nicene Creed rests. Indeed, it is this encounter with the raised Person of Christ that fuels the ascetic life lived by each Christian as he or she prepares in this life for eternal life beyond the grave.
We know that the Pharisees and Sadducees differed greatly on the Jewish teaching regarding the resurrection. We read in the Book of Acts the following:
Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand.(Acts 4:1-4)
The great preacher, St. John Chrysostom, reflected on this passage:
They were annoyed, not only because the apostles were teaching, but because they declared that not only was Jesus Christ himself risen from the dead but that through him we too rise again… So powerful was his resurrection that he is the cause of resurrection for others as well.[iii]
Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers testify to the importance of resurrection, celebrated on this Feast of St. Lazarus. On Lazarus Saturday, all believers encounter the power of the resurrection as revealed in the Book of Acts. As those who keep this feast today, we rejoice as we hear the voice of Jesus calling forth Lazarus, four days dead! Adults work hard to rationalize the reality of the resurrection. These mental contortions often lead us away from the simple faith that children possess—a faith that Jesus tells us is the model of fruit-bearing discipleship. On Lazarus Saturday, our eyes see the joy of children as they behold the resurrection and rejoice in something they cannot explain in worldly terms, but acknowledge, by faith, to be true.
Many customs have developed through the centuries as this story of these friends of Jesus, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, has spread from Bethany. Most of these customs involve the participation of children. The procession following the Divine Liturgy on Lazarus Saturday is a foreshadowing of the Paschal procession. In the Middle Eastern tradition, special Lenten candies are made and are tied to a branch. As the children finish the outdoor procession and enter the church by passing under the branch, they pull off these treats and eat them. It has been said that after coming forth from the tomb and during his time as the bishop in Citium in Cypress, St. Lazarus only ate sweet tasting foods as a sign of the joy of having had a foretaste of the sweetness of eternal life in Christ. In this way, the children imitate St. Lazarus and eat sweets in anticipation of the “sweet taste” of eternal life.
In Romania, especially in the Wallachia, young girls will choose a girl from among them (usually the youngest) to be dressed in bridal clothing in anticipation of the wedding feast enjoyed by all believers at the time of the general resurrection. They all then trek through their villages, dancing and singing of St. Lazarus. As with many feasts in Romania, special breads are baked and given to the children and the needy. Flowers are also planted on this day, in preparation for Holy Pascha.
Serbian Orthodox Christians have the Lazarus Saturday custom of what is called “Vrbica,” or “Little Willows.” Children are encouraged to go into the woods to find pussy willows to bring back the church for the procession, as if they are going to meet Christ who is coming to the tomb of Lazarus, while singing the troparion of the feast. Children are also often dressed in their very best clothes, as if it were already Pascha. Bells are brought by the children to church on Lazarus Saturday, making a “holy noise.”
There are many other cultural customs that have evolved in different traditional Orthodox countries as a means for giving our children a preview of Pascha and the joy of the resurrection—the hope of all Christians.
On Palm Sunday, the children of the Hebrews will run to greet the Messiah, spreading branches and palms along the way as He enters Jerusalem on a colt. When we see our children rejoicing and having fun on Lazarus Saturday and on Palm Sunday—perhaps waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!”—remember the words of Jesus to His disciples when they tried to keep the children from coming to Him. He said: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14) We Orthodox baptize our children and do not forbid them to be partakers in the full life of the Church, in obedience to what our Lord teaches us. How many of us have had our hearts melted when seeing the excitement on the faces of our children as they carry candles that they have made on Lazarus Saturday in procession? How many of us have found our own faith renewed as we heard their excited voices telling us of the coming celebration of Holy Pascha? Our children model perfect faith for those of us who have made our faith too complicated to enjoy the simple truth that:
CHRIST IS RISEN!
Whatever ethnic background or local custom you observe on Lazarus Saturday, take special note of the children. When you give the children their place and their treats on this day, also hear Jesus when He speaks to us these words which are the key to those of us who seek life in His Kingdom:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
Archpriest Chad Hatfield, Chancellor/CEO of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, also serves as the seminary’s Adjunct Professor of Missiology, one of the newest fields of study at SVOTS. Father Chad’s ordained ministry spans 35 years, during which he has served as a school chaplain spanning the elementary school to the university. In the past decade, he has held positions of leadership and administration at two of the OCA’s three seminaries. His many years in parish and school settings have provided him with a unique perspective on how to successfully include children in parish life and the importance of imbuing them with a foundational experience of the joy of Christian living. Father Chad and his wife, Matushka Thekla, have two grown sons, Jason and Sean, and three grandchildren.
[i] Kidd, David and Mother Gabriella (Ursache), Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion (Rives Junction, MI: HDM Press, 1999), 109-110.
[ii] Wilkinson John, Egeria’s Travels (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, LTD, 1999), 58.
[iii] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament V, Acts, ed. Francis Martin, General Editor, Thomas C. Oden (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 47.