Keeping Vigil in Our Hearts

Our church youth leader has organized a virtual retreat to support our young people in an all-night vigil leading into Holy Saturday (shared in shifts of private prayer within their homes throughout the night). Pray for me as I have been invited to lead a time of reflection for the young people in our church just before they take up their vigil. Below is my early draft of some introductory comments for this time together with them. This is a week away for us, and I have much more work to prepare for this time of reflection and practical application (not lecture). I also pray for a blessed Holy Week currently for all those on the Western calendar.

Warmup question and conversation: Do any of you have a time that you’d be comfortable sharing about when you were able to be with a friend or loved one who you lost? Allow time for conversation, followed by some introductory comments before further opportunity for personal reflection, application and sharing. Initial thoughts for introductory comments:

As you hold vigil tonight, it is a help and blessing to all of the rest of us in your parish. What I most want to share as you prepare is simply: thank you for your faithfulness and for your prayers before Jesus Christ as the rest of us sleep tonight. I pray that what we contemplate together during the next hour will encourage you to see what a blessing your vigil is to everyone in your church.

You will be spending part of your night standing in honor before the one who we sing about often as the Only Lover of Mankind. Jesus Christ went voluntarily to the cross because of His love for us. We found His love unbearable and we rejected the Way, the Truth and the Life, but He loved us to the end and joined us in our most helpless condition—in death itself.

Very shortly, only hours after the crucifixion and death of our Lord, most of us in St. John Chrysostom Church will go to bed and sleep through the night. However, each of you will take turns as a part of our church body to wake up and to be with Jesus Christ as He lays in the tomb that was so hurriedly prepared for Him by those who were still with him on that terrifying and confusing day when He was crucified.

God has made it clear in so many places that we do nothing alone. In your quiet vigil, as you stand with Jesus Chirst, you are still a part of your church family and you stand with all the saints and angels. Jesus Christ did not die alone. He was united to each one of us in His death, and He therefore unites us also to His own glorious resurrection. Through this coming night, you will be the chief witnesses and attendants within our parish community to Christ’s union with each one of us in our own profound weakness and need. As our Lord lies within His stone tomb that had originally been prepared for someone else, you will uphold all of us in prayer before His icons in your homes and before Our Lord Himself within your hearts.

You will be standing and struggling to attend in your hearts before the One about whom St. John Chrysostom says in his paschal homily: “Hell took a body, and met God face to face.” Even the dead body of Jesus Christ is God and therefore Life itself. All of us in this parish are spiritually dead, but Jesus unites Himself and His divine Life to us, even in our death. As you each take turns in the presence of Jesus Christ’s precious body, you will be supporting all the rest of us in participation with the unique life-giving death of Jesus through which he united Himself to all of us. By showing this love and devotion to Jesus Christ in His death, you bless and help your entire church family.

As you prepare for this vigil, I will ask you to spend a little time contemplating, writing privately, and sharing some thoughts with each other (as you feel comfortable). What I will ask can be summarized in two questions. First, what is your heart and what does it mean to meet there with God? Second, what are we told about Holy Saturday and the events surrounding this full day that our Lord spends dead within a tomb that was given to Him hastily by a wealthy follower?

Our heart, within each of us, overlaps with the throneroom of God. Christ stands continually at the door of our heart and knocks so that He can come in and be seated with us there. If we can allow our heart to open before God, we can behold Jesus Christ. Our heart and God’s heavenly throne are designed to share the same space.

Note on possible points of reflection here: Pause to consider what we have heard and learned about our hearts from past readings and teachings that we have had. Allow some time for quiet reflection and writing followed by an opportunity to share. Depending on the time and response, perhaps provide some content for reflection such as:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. . . . It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, attributed to St. Macarius, Homily 15.32.

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

We search for You in prayer, O Lord, for all is comprehended in You. May we be enriched by You, for You are wealth that does not diminish with the changes of time. May Your loving-kindness come to our aid! May Your grace defend us! From Your treasury, pour out upon us restoration to heal our sores. …Accept these prayers from us, O our God, Who have descended to us. Accept the tears of sinners and show mercy to the guilty. According to Your desire You have been united with us; be the intercessor of our prayer. Raise it up to Your Father and establish peace in our souls.

From a selection of prayers excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse from the works of Holy Father Ephraim the Syrian.

As we behold Jesus Christ and commune with Him on the eve of Holy Saturday, we are communing with a dead Savior. However, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us, even when “hell took a body,” it still “met God face to face.” We too can stand with love and sorrow beside this body of our Lord. Our hearts, because they overlap with the throne room of God, give us access to a place that is outside of time as we typically live through it. John’s vision on the island of Patmos beholds Jesus offering Himself as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” We know that Jesus is risen from the dead and seated in glory at the right hand of God the Father. At the same time, Jesus Christ is still a Lamb who has been slain since before the world was made, and Jesus still offers His own body and blood to us as the food that we need to have true Life.

In our heart, we can keep each feast and be truly present with Christ and His saints at each moment in Christ’s life and in each of God’s great saving acts throughout history. You therefore will keep vigil tonight before Jesus Christ in His tomb, and this is entirely real. Your presence before Christ in His ultimate humiliation is as real as that of Joseph of Arimathea who helped to carry Christ’s body to a tomb that he owned and who helped to hurriedly anoint Jesus with spices that Nicodemus had bought. Your own prayer in this vigil joins you together with these two grieving men as you too care for Jesus Christ with your readings and attention.

This is a precious and difficult struggle that you are undertaking for all of us. In the dictionary, a vigil is “a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance.” The Italian word from the same Latin root now means “eve” (as in the night before a great event or a glorious feast). After we were removed from Eden, the whole of human life and of our world has become a place and time of waiting and watching.

It is sad that we could not be together in person earlier today at our church on Holy Friday to be with Christ at His death. However, Father Peter and a few members of our church family were able to hold this service on our behalf, and we could be with them before Christ upon the cross within our hearts. Despite the sadness at being kept out of church and at the suffering of so many who are sick and who have lost loved ones, this is a time when we can be grateful for our homes and be reminded of God’s presence with us before our icons as we pray alone in our rooms or with our families. This is an opportunity for us to be reminded in a fresh way that the temple of God is in our hearts. This is always where a vigil truly takes place. Our beautiful church—with everything that we love about it—was made simply to help us renovate our hearts as the temples of God where we keep a blessed vigil continually, remembering Jesus Christ as He joins Himself to all those who face suffering and death.

In closing, as I said at the start, please pray for me as I continue to prepare for this time of reflection with some of my fellow church members. Below, in parting, are a few icons of Christ’s extreme humility as well as a few traditional hymns from the Lamentations service on Great and Holy Friday.

  • Verily, Hades was pierced and destroyed by the divine fire when it received in its heart him who was pierced in his side with a spear for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.
  • The tomb is happy, having become Divine when it received within it the Treasure of life, the Creator, as one who slumbereth for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.
  • The life of all was willing to lie in a grave, in accordance with the law of the dead, making it appear as the fountain of the Resurrection for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.
  • The Godhead of Christ was one without separation in Hades, in the tomb, in Eden, and with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

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