One of the most beloved hymns from Matins is “Having beheld the resurrection of Christ”. This beautiful hymn says something that we often take for granted, for this phrase that makes up the title of the song is an incomplete sentence. The full sentence is “Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us bow to the holy Lord Jesus, who alone is sinless.” At times we may turn to the Gospel of John and hear of St. Thomas’ doubt, where Christ says that he is blessed for believing but that those who do not see and believe are even more blessed than St. Thomas. How then can we say that we have beheld the resurrection of Christ, if we are those who are more blessed than St. Thomas? I think one important answer to this question is that we have been blessed with a rich tradition around the resurrection, with our Sunday resurrectional Matins that allows us even to behold the Resurrection of Christ. We will answer some key questions about the resurrection by looking to our liturgical traditions around matins and in so doing, come to behold the Resurrection of Christ all the more clearly. For today, we will focus on these questions: What are our sources that point to the veracity of the Resurrection? Was the tomb really empty? How does Matins speak to these questions?
To be able to answer this, we must confess: Matins is one of the more complicated services in the Byzantine Tradition. The word Byzantine in its adjectival sense of being complicated may be no clearer than when one tries to weave one’s way through matins! For the sake of focus and simplicity, we will consider the stichera, which are liturgical hymns, that come to us at the Psalms of Praise (Psalms 148-150). These are the last Psalms sung prior to the Great Doxology, and for Sundays there are 8 different sets of stichera based on the 8 tones. These hymns touch on many aspects of the resurrection, so for today we will turn our attention to four stichera that are all found in the same place during the psalms of praise. They attest to the remarkable nature of the resurrection and the sources that testify that it is not merely something that the apostles hoped for; instead, we will see that there are multiple grounds to believe in the historical reality of the resurrection. The tomb really was empty, and Christ’s resurrection is something that we can truly behold.
In the psalms of praise of tone 1, we are confronted with a hymn that points us to the reality of the resurrection. In the last sticheron before the “Glory” we pray, “Where are the soldiers who went to guard the grave? Where are the seals of the tomb? Where was the Buried One moved from the Grave? Where was the Priceless One sold? How was the Treasure stolen? Why do you deny the resurrection of the Crucified One, O wavering people, thus falling into error and transgressing the Law? He is truly risen as one who is free among the dead, and he grants great mercy to the world.”
In other stichera, we praise and exalt Christ for saving us. Here, our hymn speaks of six questions that are asked to an audience of “wavering people”. We may at times have our doubts, but this hymn asks questions that are really quite poignant sources to attest to the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Soldiers were guarding His most pure body (as the Tone 1 Sunday Troparion proclaims, as a side note) on behalf of both the Roman government and the Pharisees who did not want His body to be stolen. A seal further buttressed the tomb to keep it from being entered. Furthermore, even if these guards and seals could be broken, the questions continue by asking where Christ’s body was moved to, or perhaps it was stolen? How could this even happen? The last question really drives the point home-it asks in the face of these impediments to moving His body why we doubt or deny the resurrection, and we close the hymn professing his great mercy. But our tradition offers more. Let’s look at some other tones.
The sticheron from Tone 2 that is just before “Glory” in the Psalms of Praise is equally poignant about the reality of the miracle of the resurrection. It says: “O transgressors of the law, when you sealed the tomb, you did in truth magnify the miracle for us as the guards know; especially since you persuaded them to say on the day of his resurrection from the tomb: While we slept, the disciples came and stole him away. For who would steal a corpse, especially a naked one? He truly arose in his divine power leaving his shroud in the grave; without breaking the seals he has trampled down Death, and he has given to the human race life eternal and great mercy.” The questions and argument continue along the same lines, but it makes the point about the miraculous nature of the resurrection even clearer. First, it points out that by sealing the tomb and placing guards, it is a way to strengthen the veracity of the resurrection. The miracle is magnified because if he were to have been risen while in the presence of believers it would be one thing. Instead, he is guarded by Roman soldiers who do not profess faith, and there is the seal present. The question about the idea of stealing a naked corpse is a further question pointing to the basis for the resurrection not being fabricated. As one imagines the disciples confronting armed Roman soldiers, breaking the seal to the tomb that was given to them by Joseph of Arimathea, and then carrying out the naked body of Christ, the idea that the resurrection was fabricated melts away. The shock of the soldiers and the fact that the stone rolls away comes into our focus. And our hymns teach us this so clearly.
Tone 4 likewise has a sticheron that is also just before the “Glory” in the Psalms of praise that engages us to consider the reality of the resurrection: “Where is Jesus whom you thought you were guarding? Where is he whom you had placed in the grave and sealed with a stone? Give us his body, O deniers of life. Give us the buried one or else believe in the Resurrection. And even if you keep silent, the stones shall proclaim this good news, especially that stone which was rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. How great is your mercy, O Lord, and great is the mystery of your plan of salvation! O Savior, glory to you!” Are we seeing a pattern here with these stichera? With tone 4 we likewise see several questions that teach us about the resurrection. Here we are talking to a doubting audience like the other tones, but we are even more focused on the guards by asking them this question: Where is Jesus? You were guarding him after placing him in the grave and sealing the stone! If you will not do so, perhaps you should believe? As we speak to the soldiers and others in doubt, we can speak to our own doubts and realize that they are not well-founded. As the hymn points out in echo to Christ’s own words about the stones crying out if one were to forbid the praise he received from the children on Palm Sunday in Luke 19 verse 40, if there is a stone that truly cries out in witness to the Resurrection, it would be the exact stone that sealed the tomb. Again, think of the Tone 1 Sunday Troparion: “The Stone was sealed….” In many ways one of the most reliable sources of the resurrection is not an angel or a human. This stone cries out as an impediment, together with the guards and the eyewitnesses who beheld his resurrection, to speak to its historical truth.
For our last liturgical reflection, here are the words of tone 5 in the sticheron that is found in the same place as the other 3 stichera cited above: “The guards, keeping watch over the God-bearing tomb, said to the Pharisees: Woe to your vain counsel, for you sought to keep the boundless One. You have labored in vain; for you thought that you could hide the Resurrection of the crucified One, but you only showed it more clearly. Woe to your foolish secret meeting. Why do you take counsel to hide what cannot be hidden? It would be better that you listen to us and choose to believe in that which happened. An angel, resplendent like lightning, descended from heaven and rolled away the stone, and from fear of him we were encompassed by death. To the courageous myrrh-bearing women he said: Do you not see the guards as dead, the seals broken and Hades emptied? Why do you then seek as dead him who abolished the victory of Hades and broke the thorn of death? Go quickly and tell the good news of the Resurrection to the apostles, and shout fearlessly, saying: In truth the Lord is risen, the One who gives us great mercy.” In this sticheron, we are going even more deeply into the mystery of the Resurrection. Our focus remains at the beginning on the guards, but we are brought into dialogue with the Pharisees who wanted the guards to watch over the body of Christ. They are given words not recorded in Scripture, but again point to the arguments for the resurrection very clearly. They note that in guarding Christ’s body the miracle is made even more clear, because it was ultimately futile to try to stop Christ’s resurrection. Further, they are cast as fellow believers with the apostles. While tradition holds that St. Longinus was the soldier who pierced Christ’s side and eventually believe, I do not know of a tradition whereby the soldiers guarding the tomb ended up believing in Christ. Nevertheless, this would make a lot of sense, particularly if they made the arguments that they are given to make in this hymn. As we heard, they profess that the stone was rolled away, and we learn that this was done by an angel, causing great fear among them. In addition, they appear to have been present when the angel spoke to the myrrh-bearing women. The message of the angel that the women received and was later passed to the disciples becomes another very important source of testimony to the resurrection. The faithful, together with the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees have heard the good news proclaimed by the angel, Christ, and yes, the stone. Christ is truly Risen! I hope these hymns and reflection on them have helped us see the beauty of the resurrection. The next time you sing “Having beheld the Resurrection”, realize that our tradition in Matins (and beyond) will show us that that is the case. Glory to Jesus Christ!
“The stone was sealed by the Jews, soldiers guarded your most pure body, but you, O Savior, arose on the third day granting life to the world. Therefore, the heavenly powers acclaimed you, O Giver of Life: Glory to your resurrection, O Christ! Glory to your Kingdom! Glory to your Salvation! You alone love us all.” Tone 1 Resurrectional Troparion