Scott Richert writes in “From the Chapel”: Over the last few weeks, I have mentioned…
From the Chapel — April 11: Awake, O sleeper
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
One of the more moving Good Friday devotions is the practice in the Eastern Church of venerating Jesus in his tomb. On the evening of Good Friday, an icon of the body of Christ, printed on or woven into cloth, is placed at the front of the church, and the faithful crawl on their knees from the entrance to the icon to venerate the shroud.
In our two years at Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale, Virginia, we watched children as young as 2 or 3, adults in their 80s, and everyone in between make that pilgrimage up the center aisle of the church. The experience is humbling, much like climbing the Scala Sancta in Rome, the Holy Stairs from Pontius Pilate’s palace that were brought to Rome by St. Helena in the fourth century. Those, too, the faithful may only ascend on their knees, in remembrance of Christ who ascended them to face Pilate.
The shroud remains entombed through the night, surrounded by candles, as Jesus sleeps in the tomb, awaiting his resurrection on Easter morn.
And yet …
There is that ancient homily for Holy Saturday, the first paragraph of which is often quoted to set the scene for these hours of both mourning and hope, of sorrow and expectation:
“What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
Those words shake my soul, but the homily does not end there. Because today, Christ’s body may sleep, but he never rests. Today is the harrowing of hell, when Jesus descends into the netherworld to destroy the power of Satan and to free all those who died in faith and hope before Christ came into the world:
“The Lord goes into them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.'”
Awake, O sleeper. Christ sleeps, and yet he is awake; we are awake, and yet we sleep. We sleep, like Adam, in the darkness of our sin. We sleep in the shadow of the death that will one day come for us. We sleep in the shroud that covers our reason and keeps us from seeing the full light of the truth that comes only from God.
We sleep, on this Holy Saturday, yet as the hour of his resurrection approaches, our sleep is pierced by the words that Adam heard 2,000 years ago: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.