Saturday, April 15, 2023

Two Ancient Prophecies of Holy Saturday

Of the many ruptures which the 1955 reform of Holy Week introduced into the Roman Rite, one of the most violent is the reduction of the twelve prophecies read at the Easter vigil to four, and the elimination of all the baptismal rituals from the vigil of Pentecost, including the repetition of six of these prophecies. This entailed the complete removal from the entire Roman liturgy of two Old Testament passages that are cited many times by the Church Fathers in connection with the Paschal mystery.

Detail of a Christian sarcophagus of the Constantinian period (ca. 305-35), known as the Sarcophagus of Adelphia, discovered in the church of St John in Syracuse, Sicily, in 1872. From left to right are shown: the Sacrifice of Isaac; the healing of the man born blind; the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; and the raising of the son of the widow of Naim. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Davide Mauro; CC BY-SA 4.0)
The first is Genesis 22, 1-18, the story somewhat inaccurately known as the Sacrifice of Isaac, who is, of course, not actually sacrificed in the end. (Jewish tradition calls it “the binding of Isaac.”) The oldest known sermon on Easter, the Paschal homily of St Melito of Sardis (ca. 170), refers to this as a prefiguration of the Sacrifice of another Son:

“Thus if you wish to see the mystery of the Lord, look at Abel who is likewise slain, at Isaac who is likewise tied up (59), … And he bore the wood on his shoulders, going up to slaughter like Isaac at the hand of his father. But Christ suffered. Isaac did not suffer, for he was a type of the passion of Christ which was to come… (frag. 9)”
Likewise, his contemporary St Irenaeus:
“Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood, follow (Christ). … For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up as a sacrifice to God his only-begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption.” (Adversus Haereses, 4, 5, 4)
The foolishness of deleting this reading was realized and corrected in the Novus Ordo, which restored it to the Easter vigil, albeit with one of the optional shorter forms that plague the post-Conciliar lectionary. The shorter form permits the omission of much of what makes the story so dramatic, the part where Isaac says to his father, “where is the victim for the holocaust?”, and Abraham replies, “God will provide himself a victim for an holocaust, my son.” Hopefully, in arranging the celebration of the Easter vigil, people will treat the Word of God with more respect than the members of the Consilium did.
The Vision of Ezechiel, 1630, by Francisco Collantes (Madrid, 1599-1656); Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The second, Ezekiel 37, 1-14, was accepted by the Church Fathers from the most ancient times as a prophecy of the resurrection of the body at the end of the world, and hence of the Resurrection of Christ that makes this possible. Again St Irenaeus:
“Now Isaias thus declares (26, 19), that He who at the beginning created man, did promise him a second birth after his dissolution into earth: ‘The dead shall rise again, and they who are in the tombs shall arise, and they who are in the earth shall rejoice. … ’ And Ezekiel speaks as follows: ‘And the hand of the Lord came upon me, and the Lord led me forth in the Spirit, and set me down in the midst of the plain, and this place was full of bones. And He caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were many upon the surface of the plain very dry. And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I said, Lord, Thou who hast made them dost know. And He said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and thou shalt say to them, Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord to these bones, Behold, I will cause the spirit of life to come upon you, and I will lay sinews upon you, and bring up flesh again upon you, and I will stretch skin upon you, and will put my Spirit into you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. … ’ ”
This passage is cited to the same effect by Tertullian, St Cyprian and St Ambrose in the West, by Origen, St Cyril of Jerusalem and St John Chrysostom in the East, among many others.
Unsurprisingly, both readings are also found in the Byzantine Rite on Holy Saturday, although not at the same ceremony. Genesis 22 is the tenth of the fifteen prophecies read at the Vesperal Divine Liturgy, which also shares with the Roman Rite, wholly or in part, readings from Genesis 1, Exodus 12, the book of Jonah, Exodus 14, and Daniel 3. (These last two are much longer in their Byzantine version, and have canticles attached to them, as they do in the Roman Rite. The Byzantines also read the whole book of Jonah, as the Ambrosians do at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.)
Ezekiel 37, on the other hand, is read at Orthros of Holy Saturday, one of the most beautiful services of the year, commonly called Jerusalem Matins. This is the only day on which Orthros ends with a special synaxis of three readings: Ezekiel 37, 1-14; 1 Corinthians 5, 6-8 and Galatians 3, 13-14 (as a single reading, titled to the former); and Matthew 27, 62-66, which tells of the setting of the guards at the Lord’s tomb.
Today is Holy Saturday on the Julian calendar, and this post is in part an excuse to use a video of one of my favorite things about the Byzantine Rite, pertinent to the day, a special setting of this reading. This recording was made at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, seven years ago. (The first few times I attended this service, I knew barely a word of Church Slavonic, and had no idea what was happening most of the time. It was sung rather more slowly than it is here, and the cantor used a score with all the notes printed out, rather than a lectionary, so I thought it was some kind of solo motet, a lamentation for the Lord’s death.)
This English version is also very beautiful; the prophecy is preceded by a chant from a Psalm called a prokimen, like most Scriptural readings in the Byzantine Rite other than the Gospel.
This recording skips the Epistle and its prokimen, and goes straight to the Alleluia before the Gospel (one of the most beautiful in the repertoire), which has a very interesting feature. The three verses between the repetition of Alleluia are taken from the beginning of Psalm 67: “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered, and let those who hate him flee from before his face. As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish, as wax melts before the fire. So let the sinners perish at the presence of God, but let the righteous be glad.”
At the beginning of Orthros of Easter, these same verses are said between repetitions of the Paschal tropar, “Christ is risen from the dead, having trampled death by death, and having given life to those in the tombs.” But to these is added a fourth verse, from Psalm 117, “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein”, the same verse which is said at every Hour of the Roman Office during the octave. This arrangement is then repeated at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, and at Vespers, and so on through the rest of the week until the Divine Liturgy of Bright Saturday.
UPDATE: about ten minutes ago, the YouTube channel of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church posted this video of the completed live stream of its Easter night service, celebrated by Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv at the Golden-Domed Monastery of St Michael. Even thought it is 4¾ hours long, it would probably take me even longer to write a complete description of everything that happens, so suffice it to say that the feature described in the preceding paragraph occurs for the first time, at the beginning of Orthros, at 52:40.
To all our readers who follow the Julian calendar, we wish you a most blessed feast of the glorious Resurrection - He is truly risen!

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