St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Theme of Resurrection & Renewal in the 15 OT Readings of Holy Saturday

 

Today I will conclude the series of homilies exploring the fifteen Old Testament passages read on Holy Saturday morning. I believe Teva is passing out copies of the readings if you would like to follow along.

Once again, the Liturgy of St. Basil on Holy Saturday morning is the service when the catechumens are baptized and we first hear the gospel proclaiming Christ’s resurrection. You might also know it as the service when Fr. Anthony throws flowers throughout the church, as a celebration of this climax to our liturgical year. I think I speak for many people here when I say this is my favorite church service at St. Mary’s.

These 15 Old Testament readings come right before the epistle and gospel in that service, so we have to ask ourselves: what is so important about these specific passages that out of the entire Bible, they were chosen to be read right before Christ’s resurrection is announced? Each individual passage has something to teach us, but more importantly, as a collection they highlight several themes that prepare us for the joyous news we are about to hear. Previous speakers have explored the themes of covenant, mission and sacrifice. Today, we will look the most pervasive theme, which is, appropriately, resurrection and renewal.

The very first reading comes from Genesis Ch. 1, and it describes the first three days of creation. That is, the creation of light, the firmament, dry land and vegetation. What does this story of the creation of the material world have to do with the resurrection?

It reminds us that all of creation is inherently good. The scripture repeats three times, “And God saw that it was good.” This one, simple fact justifies Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. We might not think about it often, but why did God bother to send His son to die for us? Once He saw that creation had become corrupted and sinful, why didn’t He just wipe the slate clean and start over, as He almost did in the time of Noah? It’s a scary thought. But although we are fallen, creation is still inherently good and has the potential to return to a state of perfect communion with God. This potential is what allowed him to have mercy on us and save us.

Readings 8 and 12 come from the 1st and 2nd book of Kings, respectively, and both of these passages foreshadow Christ’s resurrection by describing a prophet raising a child from the dead. In the eighth reading, God sends Elijah to a widow in Zar’ephath and when she makes him bread, her meal and oil miraculously last for many days. While Elijah is still there, the widow’s son falls ill and dies, but Elijah “stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again’” and the boy revived.

This is actually the first record in scripture of someone being raised from the dead, which begs the question: why isn’t Christ the first and only person resurrected? I would argue that it’s important for us to be introduced to God’s amazing power over death, so that when we hear of Christ’s resurrection we don’t focus on it as a physical impossibility, since we’ve already seen God do this, but rather we focus on the spiritual implications for our salvation because of who it is that is being resurrected. 

In the 12th reading, the prophet Eli’sha, the pupil of Elijah, grants a wealthy Shunnamite woman her wish for a child, because of her hospitality. Many years later, the boy falls ill suddenly and dies. The Shunnamite woman travels immediately to the man of God, and asks him to revive her son. And the reading stops there. We know that the story continues, and that Eli’sha travels back to the woman’s home and revives her son, however the reading does not actually include that resurrection. Reading 8 has already made us aware of God’s power over death, so I would argue that the purpose of this reading is to build our anticipation, so that when we hear of Christ’s ultimate conquering of death in the gospel, we feel an even greater sense of completion and catharsis.

Finally, readings 4 and 15 reflect how we must participate in the resurrection not only in death but throughout our lives here on this Earth, through continual spiritual renewal. After all, Christ did not die on the cross to provide each of us with an express ticket to heaven. He opened the doors to the Kingdom, and provided an example of how we might get there. In order to follow his lead, we must continually die to sin and renew and perfect our faith both as individuals and as a community.

Reading 4 is the story of Jonah, how he tried to hide from God’s command and ended up in the belly of a great fish for three days. In those three days, he must have had a lot of time to think about his sin. Ultimately, he recognized that he had hit rock bottom and repented; “The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me… yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God…But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay.” We see that Jonah emerges from the fish spiritually renewed and ready to fulfill God’s command. For us, the belly of the fish might be a time when we are laid off at work, when our child is very sick, when a loved one dies, when we feel depressed, anxious, or extremely self-conscious. How comforting for us to know that even when we actively turn away from God, when we are determined to wallow in self-pity, even then He is willing to renew us. And this is in fact a natural part of our spiritual growth.

The very last reading, 15, illustrates how expression of relentless faith can spark spiritual renewal within a community. It is the story of the three Jewish youths, Shadrak, Meshak and Abdenigo, who refuse to worship King Nebachadnezzer’s golden statue and are cast into a fiery furnace. Because of their faith, an angel of God appears and rescues the youths so that the flames do not touch them. When they emerge from the fire unharmed, King Nebachadnezzer is astonished and declares that their God must be the one true God, and is the only deity his people will worship from then on. These Youths demonstrates that by continuing to renew and strengthen our own faith in Christ, we will also draw others to the truth.

In summary, these readings, 1, 8, 12, 4 and 15, pertain to the theme of resurrection and renewal. They explain to us that creation is inherently good and worth saving, they foreshadow and build anticipation for Christ’s resurrection, and demonstrate the necessity for our own participation in the resurrection through continual spiritual renewal  

I hope this homily series has been helpful, and that you find a deeper appreciation for these readings on Holy Saturday. May you continue to find opportunities for spiritual renewal throughout the remainder of lent.