by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Originally published by the ‘Department of Religious education, Orthodox Church in America’
The Beginning of the Cross: Saturday of Lazarus
“Having fulfilled the Forty Days we ask to see the Holy Week of Thy passion.” With these words sung at Vespers of Palm Friday, Lent comes to its end and we enter into the annual commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. It begins on the Saturday of Lazarus. The double feast of Lazarus’ Resurrection and the Entrance of the Lord to Jerusalem is described in liturgical texts as the ‘beginning of the Cross’ and is to be understood, therefore, within the context of the Holy Week. The common troparion of these days explicitly affirms that ‘by raising Lazarus from the dead Christ confirmed the truth of general resurrection.’ It is highly significant that we are led into the darkness of the Cross by one of the twelve major feasts of the Church. Light and joy shine not only at the end of Holy Week but also at its beginning; they illumine darkness itself, reveal its ultimate meaning.
All those familiar with Orthodox worship know the peculiar, almost paradoxical character of Lazarus Saturday services. It is a Sunday, i.e., a Resurrection. service on a Saturday, a day usually devoted to the liturgical commemoration of the dead. And the joy which permeates these services stresses one central theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for Death in its universal power, for that inescapable darkness and destruction that swallows all life and poisons with its shadow the whole world. But now “with Lazarus’ resurrection” ‘death begins to tremble.’ For there the decisive duel between Life and Death begins and it gives us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. In the early church
Lazarus Saturday was called ‘announcement of Pascha’: it announces and anticipates, indeed, the wonderful light and peace of the next – the Great and Holy Saturday, the day of the Life giving Tomb.