The Week of Palms: a Prelude to Salvation

THE SIXTH WEEK OF THE GREAT FAST has a two-fold designation in our liturgical books. First of all, it marks the end of this fasting season. We also fast during the Great and Holy Week of the Lord’s Passion, but that observance is not part of the Great Fast. The Great Fast has prepared us to celebrate the paschal mystery of Christ’s saving passion, death and resurrection by inviting us to refocus our lives on God in repentance. During the Holy Week, our fasting has a different character: it is a way of observing the sorrowful events of this week: the plotting against Christ, His betrayal, passion, death and burial.

Between the two fast periods we observe the double feast of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. This last week of the Great Fast is simultaneously a week of preparation for these feasts. In our liturgical books this week, then, is called the Week of Palms, looking forward to that celebration.

The hymns prescribed to be sung this week in Vespers, Orthros (Matins) and the Presanctified Liturgy reflect both of these themes. On one hand the services include chants focused on the end of the Great Fast such as the final sticheron sung this coming Friday: “Count us worthy of beholding the week of Your Passion, O Lover of Mankind, for we have completed the forty days of the Fast for the profit of our souls. Let us glorify Your mighty deeds, Your ineffable dispensation for our sake, singing with one mind: ‘O Lord, glory to You!’”

Other chants reflect the coming feast, recalling Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At Orthros on Monday, for example, we sing: “O faithful, let us prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday, joyfully observing the forefeast from this present day onwards, so that we may be counted worthy to see the life-giving Passion.”

The Death of Lazarus

Even more of this week’s hymnody recalls the raising of Lazarus, whom the Gospel describes as having died four days before Christ raised him.

About one-and-a-half miles east of Jerusalem lay the village of Bethany (today’s al-‘Azariya), the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. St. John’s Gospel tells us in detail how Jesus was informed that Lazarus was sick. “This sickness is not unto death,” He answered, “but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany Lazarus was already dead for four days.

The dramatic story of the raising of Lazarus from the grave is celebrated in Byzantine Churches on the first day of the Great Week of Christ’s passion, Lazarus Saturday. A day of Resurrection, we observe it as a Sunday with the appropriate Resurrectional prayers and chants. The resuscitation of Lazarus was the Lord’s greatest miracle so far, but would be but a prelude to His own resurrection which we celebrate on Pascha.

The Gospel says that Jesus retuned to Bethany and, while they were at table, Mary anointed Him with costly ointment. When Judas questioned this act of extravagance, Jesus reproved him, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). The next day, the Gospel tells us, Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!”

The Church rearranges these events in its Great Week observance. It celebrates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem the day after Lazarus Saturday, stressing the connection of Christ’s exuberant reception in Jerusalem with the raising of Lazarus. It defers the memorial of the anointing to the Wednesday of Great Week, the day that we are anointed in preparation for sharing in Christ’s passion.

In the Gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem are connected. We read that Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb at some time before His final trip to Jerusalem (see John 12:1). Yet the same Gospel points out that: “…the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign” (John 12:17-18).

Jesus’ return to Bethany sparks the triumphal reception which Jesus received to the excitement over the raising of Lazarus. Our liturgical hymns take up this connection: “The Lord comes, seated upon the colt of a donkey, as it is written. O peoples, make ready to receive Him in awe as the King of all, and to welcome Him with palms as Victor over Death and Hades; for He has raised Lazarus!”

Each day of this week brings us closer to the commemoration of Lazarus’ rising. Thus on Monday we pray: “The door of the forecourt is opened that leads to the raising of Lazarus: for Christ has come to awaken the dead man, as though from sleep, and to overthrow Death by Life.”

At Orthros on Tuesday we sing a similar hymn: “Be glad, Bethany! For Christ shall come to you, performing in you a great and awesome miracle. Binding death with fetters, as God He will raise up Lazarus, who was dead, and who now magnifies the Creator.” On Wednesday, four days before we celebrate Lazarus’ rising, we remember his death: “Lazarus, the friend of Christ, has died today: he is carried out for burial, and Martha’s companions lament in sorrow for her brother. But Christ comes to him in joy, to show the nations that He is Himself the Life of all.”

This hymn sung on Thursday adds another note for our consideration: “For two days Lazarus has been in the tomb and sees those dead from all generations. He beholds strange and awesome things and a countless multitude held within the powers of Death. Looking at his tomb, his relatives weep bitterly; but Christ is on His way to give life to His friend and to consummate His plan for all mankind. Blessed are You, O Savior: have mercy on us!”

The plan of God is not simply to revive Lazarus, but to deliver the human race – that “countless multitude” – from the power of Death.

Resuscitation, not Resurrection

Lazarus’ rising is an icon of both Christ’s resurrection at Pascha and ours at the Last Day. Lazarus, however, was not raised to eternal life at this time. Rather he was brought back to the life of this world. According to St. Epiphanios of Cyprus (367-403), he lived for another thirty years or so. The Gospel asserts that Lazarus was a wanted man; “The chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (John 12:10-11). He is said to have fled the wrath of Christ’s enemies for Cyprus where he helped Paul and Barnabas establish a church. Eventually he became Bishop of Kition (today’s Larnaka) and died as a martyr in ad 63.

“As we complete these forty days of profit to our souls, let us exclaim: ‘Rejoice, O Bethany, birthplace of Lazarus.’ And you, his sisters, Mary and Martha, rejoice as well! For tomorrow, Christ will come and give life to your dead brother by a word. Bitter and insatiable Death will hear His voice; and trembling with fear and groaning bitterly, it will release Lazarus still wrapped in his shroud. The Hebrews, astonished at this miracle, come to meet Him, carrying branches and palms. And the children will rejoice to see the One on whom their fathers look with hate. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!