by Deacon George Shumaik
We are at the conclusion of the Old Testament readings for Great and Holy Saturday. The choir surrounds the tomb of Christ singing the Song of the Three Children— “Praise the Lord, sing and exult Him throughout all the ages.” Gunfire erupts, shattering the joyous moment. Time stops, festivity turns to fear, sirens blare, young men instinctively move to the doors of the church. Congregants of Synagogue Chabad flee to Saint John of Damascus. The fellowship hall is opened. Refuge is given. The Divine Liturgy is completed. The interior raiment of the church has turned to white. The exterior world is shadowed by a dark veil of evil. People of differing faith are thrown together. Comfort is given. Tears are shed. Hugs are exchanged. The best of humanity shines forth! All are detained for hours while authorities sort out good from evil. A tsunami of news media descends upon the scene.
At Saint John of Damascus there will be no midnight office, there will be no procession to the empty tomb, there will be no pre-dawn announcement of the Risen Christ. The next morning, a police escort will guide clergy and faithful to the church. Like the myrrh-bearing women, we go not knowing what we would find but understanding that the “one thing needful” was necessary. The tomb is taken down. The Epitaphion is transferred quietly to the altar. Then the doors are physically and spiritually thrown open. Light begins to overcome darkness. The Risen Christ is proclaimed. The Resurrectional Troparia are sung. The Prologue of John is read. The sermon of St John Chrysostom is delivered with more poignancy than ever – “Death where is thy sting? Hades where is thy victory? Christ is Risen and you are overthrown!” The Eucharist nourishes. The Paschal flowers that had adorned the tomb of our Lord are carried in a spontaneous silent procession to the Synagogue to honor their martyred congregant Lori. Memory Eternal!
Within minutes of the shooting, the entire world knew that another act of violence had occurred. The scramble for “the story” consumed a voracious news media. Much of the reporting was accurate, including the long-term relationship between Chabad Synagogue and Saint John of Damascus Church. We enjoy much more than peaceful co-existence. In 2010, the Diocese of the West Assembly was held at Saint John. At that time, the fellowship hall was modest, so a tent was erected. An unusually severe storm washed out the venue. Who opened their door to us to hold our celebration? — the Chabad community! Their existence, from the point of view of city government, has been dependent on the use of our parking lot. Father Alexander and Rabbi Yisrael speak frequently—not about theology but the real-world problems of shepherding their respective flocks. It was unusual that on the Saturday of April 27th both communities were at prayer. Therein lies another story that deserves to be told.
Saturday for the Jews and Orthodox Christians has always been the Sabbath. Chabad was assembled on the eighth day of Passover for a service that in Hebrew is called Yizkor which is translated as “remembrance.” — a solemn gathering remembering their dead. At the same time, we were gathered at the tomb of our Crucified Lord remembering His sacrifice on that Sabbath when He “rested from all His works.” In both services readings are taken from the Old Testament: for Jews, from the Torah, for us, from the Pentateuch — synonymous terms for the first five books of the Bible. Passover remembers the deliverance of the Hebrews from the final plague of death sent by God to the first-born of their Egyptian captors thus beginning a lengthy journey to the Promised Land. We read these same passages from the book of Exodus on Great and Holy Saturday as a prefiguration of our Lord’s Passover from death to life – His Holy Pascha.
The theological difference between Judaism and Christianity is straightforward. For us, the Messiah has come; for them, He is yet to arrive. Yet we still worship the same God and share a common humanity. Both Faiths express themselves in the world as concern and care for “the other” — for our brothers and sisters — for our neighbor. Both Faiths are grounded in Scripture and Holy Tradition. Saint Paul, in the 11th chapter of his letter to the Romans, expounds on how Christians are grafted to the root of Israel. Jesus, speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, declares that “salvation is of the Jews.” The introit at the Gospel Entrance at Pascha is “Bless God in the churches, the Lord, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!” (Ps 68:26). The first verses of the same Psalm 68 are those sung at the Great Censing at the start of the Paschal Liturgy. “Let God Arise, let His enemies be scattered, let those who hate Him flee from before His face!”.
It is a dogma of our Orthodox Christian Faith that Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man did not bring salvation only to the Jews or to the Gentiles but to all humankind. Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has in its final verses a wisdom of universal applicability at this time of pain. “Therefore, putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry, but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4: 25-32). Amen. Christ is Risen!
(Deacon George serves at St. John of Damascus Church in Poway, California)