27 March 2010

The Saturday of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus from the dead

Patrick Comerford

This year, the dates for Lent, Holy Week and Easter fall on the same days in both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church. However, today, the day before Palm Sunday, has no traditional name in the Western Church. On the other hand, in the Orthodox Church, this day is traditionally known as the Saturday of Lazarus.

In the Gospel According to Saint John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last and the greatest of the Signs performed by Christ. But this sign is also the immediate cause of his death, for this is the sign that convinces the religious leaders in Jerusalem that they must get rid of Jesus. And so, on this day, the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Christ is both historically and theologically an appropriate Sign to recall as a prelude to the death and resurrection of Christ.

According to an ancient tradition, Lazarus was 30 years old when he was raised from the dead. He then lived another 30 years on Cyprus until he died – again. Tradition also says that after he was raised from the dead, he never laughed again until the end of his life, except on one occasion when he saw someone stealing a clay vessel, smiled and said: “Clay stealing clay.”

His (second) grave is in the city of Kition, with the inscription: “Lazarus the four days dead and friend of Christ.” In 890, his relics were transferred to Constantinople by the Emperor Leo the Wise, when the Emperor composed his stichera for Vespers, “Wishing to behold the tomb of Lazarus …”

In monastic life in fifth and sixth century Palestine, monks went out in ones and twos into the desert to spend Lent in solitude. They returned to their monasteries in time for the Vigil on the night of Lazarus Saturday ahead of Palm Sunday so they could keep Holy Week together.

In Greece, it is a custom on Lazarus Saturday to make elaborate crosses out of palm leaves that will be used tomorrow, Palm Sunday. On Lazarus Saturday, people often prepare palm fronds by knotting them into crosses in preparation for the procession on Sunday. In some Orthodox churches, the custom developed of using pussy willow branches instead of palm fronds where palm fronds are not readily available. There is no canonical requirement regarding the branches that may be used, so some Orthodox people use olive branches. These branches are blessed and distributed together with candles either during the All-Night Vigil on Saturday night, or before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.

Although the forty days of Great Lent ended yesterday [Friday], the day before Lazarus Saturday, today is still observed as a fast day, with many Orthodox people abstaining from meat and dairy products, although wine and oil are allowed. In Greece, spice breads called Lazarakia are made and eaten on this day.

By the end of the fourth century, in the fully-developed pattern of Holy Week services in Jerusalem, this Saturday immediately before to Palm Sunday was dedicated to commemorating Lazarus, and included a procession to his tomb. The antiquity of this commemoration is attested to in the homilies of Saint John Chrysostom (349-407), Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), and in the seventh and eighth century hymns and canons written for this day Saint Andrew of Crete, Saint Cosmas of Maium and Saint John of Damascus.

The appointed Gospel reading for this day in the Orthodox tradition is John 11: 1-45, and the theme of the raising of Lazarus dominates all Orthodox services today, while at the same time looking forward to the resurrection of Christ on Easter Day.

In the Orthodox calendar, this combination of days has continued, linking the 40 days of Great Lent with Holy Week, with the commemorations of the suffering and death of Christ, and the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Day.

For the Orthodox Church, today and tomorrow, Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, together hold a unique position in the church calendar as days of joy and triumph coming between the penitence of Great Lent and the mourning of Holy Week.

During the past week, which for the Orthodox has been the last week of Great Lent, the hymns in the Lenten Triodion have followed the sickness and then the death of Lazarus, and Christ’s journey from beyond the River Jordan to Bethany. And so this week is popularly known as the “Week of Palms” or as the “Flowery Week.”

The canon on the Resurrection of Lazarus by Saint Andrew of Crete was read last night (Friday) at Compline. This is a full canon, including all nine canticles, whereas most canons omit the Second Canticle.

The position of Lazarus Saturday is perfectly summed up in the first sticheron that was chanted at Vespers last night (Friday):

We have completed the forty days
that bring profit to our soul.
Now we ask you in your love for us:
Grant us also to behold the Holy Week
of your suffering and death,
so that in it we may glorify your mighty acts
and your purpose for us,
too great for words.
May sing with one accord:
O Lord, glory be to you

The scripture readings and hymns for Lazarus Saturday focus on the raising of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of the Resurrection of Christ and as a promise of the General Resurrection.

The Gospel story is interpreted in the hymns as illustrating the two natures of Christ: his humanity in weeping for Lazarus and in asking: “Where have you laid him?” (John 11: 34); and his divinity by commanding Lazarus to come out from the dead (John 11: 43).

A number of the hymns, written in the first or second person, symbolically relate the death, burial and shroud of Lazarus to one’s own sinful state. Many of the hymns with Resurrection themes in a normal Sunday service are omitted tomorrow on Palm Sunday but are chanted today on Lazarus Saturday.

During the Divine Liturgy, the baptismal hymn, “As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (Romans 6: 3) is sung in place of the Trisagion. This may indicate that this was at one time a day traditionally for baptisms.

Troparion (Tone 1)

O Christ our God,
before Your Passion, you raised Lazarus from the dead
to confirm the resurrection of all.
Therefore, like children,
we carry the palms of victory,
and we cry out to you, the victor over death,
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord

Kontakion (Tone 2)

Christ, everyone’s joy, the truth, the light,
the life and the resurrection of the world,
has by his goodness appeared to those on earth.
He is the image of our resurrection,
granting divine forgiveness to all

Come out, Lazar

The Raising of Lazarus by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca 1260-1318), Kimbell Art Museum

Come out, Lazar is the tile track on a recording last year of the shorter choral works of the English choral conductor, Paul Spicer, by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, directed by Sarah MacDonald, with Claire Innes-Hopkins on the organ (Regent records, 2009, total playing time: 63:59).

Paul Spicer began his musical training as a chorister at New College, Oxford.

He studied with Herbert Howells and Richard Popplewell (organ) at the Royal College of Music in London, winning the Walford Davies Organ Prize in his final year.

He now conducts the Chamber Choirs at the Royal College of Music in London, and the Birmingham Conservatoire, and is Professor of Choral Conducting at both institutions.

I first came across his work in Lichfield where he has lived in The Close since 1990 and he was Artistic Director of the Lichfield International Arts Festival for 11 years. His Easter Oratorio was commissioned for performance in Lichfield Cathedral in 2000, and the libretto was written by his close friend, the then Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, Tom Wright, now Bishop of Durham, to mark the 1300th anniversary of Lichfield Cathedral. It was described by The Independent as “almost operatic in its inherent drama” and as being “a major contribution to the choral society repertoire.” He remains a member of the Council of Lichfield Cathedral.

The anthem Come out, Lazar is the most substantial work on last year’s recording by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College. It is a dramatic, and almost apocalyptic setting for mediaeval poetry, in this case an anonymous 14th century English text. It was commissioned by Ralph Allwood in 1984 for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast by the Uppingham Choral Course. Spicer says he has always loved mediaeval poetry, and found a natural appeal in the poem Come out, Lazar (Lazarus). “It had everything I wanted for this commission.”

The anthem is basically in an ABACA form, with the B and C sections being reflective. It takes every opportunity to use the words descriptively. The final triumphant section (“For with that word he won the field …”) builds up to a huge climax on the word “might,” and the final page keeps the excitement building to the end.

The words of this anonymous mediaeval poem are:

Come out, Lazar!
Come out, Lazaro, what so befall.
Then might not the fiend of hell
Longer make that soule to dwell.
So dreadful was that ilke cry
To that feloun, our enemy.
The kinges trumpet blew a blast;
Come out! it said, be not aghast.
With that voice the fiend gan quake,
As doth the leaf when windes wake.
Come out is now a wonder soun,
It hath o’er come that foul feloun
And all his careful [wretched] company.
For dread thereof they gunne cry;
Yet is come out a wonder song,
For it has broken the prison strong.
Fetters, chains, and bondes mo [besides]
That wroughten wretched soules woe.
That kinges voice so free
It maketh the devil and death to flee.
Say me now thou serpent sly,
Is not ‘Come out!’ an asper cry?
‘Come out’ is a word of battle,
For it gan helle soon [at once] t’assail.
Why stoppest thou not, fiend, thine ear?
That this word enter not there?
He that said that word of might,
Shop him felly to the fight. [Advanced valiantly to battle.]
For with that word he won the field
Withouten spear, withouten shield,
And brought them out of prison strong,
That were enholden there with wrong.
Tell now, tyrant, where is thy might?
‘Come out!’ hath felled it all with fight.

Notes produced last year by the Chapel of Trinity College Cambridge for Choral Evensong on 12 May 2009 helpfully explain some of the more difficult or obscure vocabulary in this poem:

1 feloun: traitor
2 gan quake: quaked
3 wonder: wonderful
4 careful: wretched
5 gunne cry: cried
6 mo: besides
7 free: noble
8 asper: harsh
9 soon: at once
10 shop him felly to the fight: advanced valiantly to battle.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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