The liturgy of the Great Friday celebration of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity addresses two of the most basic existential issues of all time– broken relationships and the fear of death. What follows is an appreciation of the Great Friday liturgy in the Syrian tradition of the Eastern Christianity. In Malayalam, my native language, this day is called Dukha (sad) Friday. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this day is called Great Friday. In the western tradition, this day is Good Friday. According to one explanation I happened to see, “good” originally was “God’s”, and so Good Friday must have been God’s Friday. This argument is supported with the example of Goodbye, which was originally God be with you. Anyway, I feel more comfortable with the name “Great Friday” which I am using here.
The Historical context
Christian communities existed in Asia, Africa, and Europe in the fourth century. Europe existed as east and west. Rome was the center of the west, and Latin was its common literary language. Constantinople was the center of the east, and Greek was its common literary language. African Christians, who were right across the Mediterranean ocean, seems to have been divided between the eastern and western Europe into Greek part and Latin part. Later African Christian communities developed their own traditions– Egyptian and Ethiopian. Asian Christianity included Christians of Antioch (within the Roman Empire), of Persian Empire, and of India. Edessa (though Antioch rose to prominence later) was the center of Asian Christianity, and Syriac was its common literary language. The liturgy of Great Friday originated in Asian Christianity, in Syriac. The name Syriac meant the language of Syria. Syria’s previous name was Aram, and Syriac was Aramaic. Aramaic was the native language of Jesus, and it was used in a large area of land in the western Asia. Aramaic was a sister to Hebrew, the language in which the Hebrew Bible was written. Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language a few centuries before Christ.
At the beginning of the fourth century CE there was a radical shift in the status of the Christian church—it became the official imperial religion of the Roman Empire. Until then it was just one of the several religious movements competing for a bare survival in the empire. It was often frowned upon by the rulers. Many of them were persecuted and even brutally killed. The edict of Milan (313 CE) changed everything; Christianity replaced the existing imperial religion. People and wealth began to flood in. The leaders of the church became imperial dignitaries, and began to be dressed like Roman senators. This changed status radically altered the self-identity of the church. Church had finally gained the freedom it had always sought after. It was no more in slavery, but it began to rule the world. A shallow and easy-going view was gaining ground that the Kingdom of God was already on earth. They didn’t feel like pilgrims any more. There was a general feeling that they had reached the Promised Land. The emperor of Rome was ruling on behalf of Christ, and all that was left for Christians to do was to rule the world along with Christ.
Only a part of Asian Christian community was under Roman Empire; the rest was under the Persian rule. When the Romans stopped persecution, the Persians started their persecution. As Rome and Persia were not in good terms, Christians received opposite treatments from these empires. When Rome persecuted Christians, they were given refuge in Persia. But when Christians became rulers in Rome, they began to be persecuted. When the Christians in Rome felt like they were ruling the world along with Christ, the Christians in Persia felt like they were suffering along with Christ.
Even within the Roman Empire there were a few Christians who refused to believe that the Roman Empire was the same as the Kingdom of God. They left the mainstream social life and accepted a monastic life. Eventually some others developed a better vision of the role of the church. Instead of running away from social life, they decided to live in the very midst of the society as the embodiment of Christ. The great leaders of the church who developed this sophisticated view were later known as the church fathers. They lived in the midst of the society as as the embodiment of Christ– not as the Christ who rules the world, but as the suffering Christ. They encouraged Christians to live like Christ. Some of them were excellent orators. Sunday after Sunday they taught people how to live like Christ. Some of them were excellent writers. They wrote essays, hymns, Bible commentaries, parables, and prayers on living like Christ.
A man convicted as a criminal, and crucified by a Roman governor was adored as the God of the Roman Empire just after three centuries, which is in 4th century A.D. At no other time in the history of the world might have happened such an event. When Constantine, the emperor of the largest empire on earth, knelt before Jesus, people asked why God became a man in Jesus, and why he allowed himself to be crucified. While some church fathers wrestled with those questions to give logically satisfying answers, some other church fathers who were poets, like Mar Aprem, tried to answer them by writing beautiful poems. The allegories they created were strong enough to fire the imagination of the succeeding generations. When Jesus was accepted as God’s incarnation, his crucifixion was considered the most important event in the history of the world, and the Great Friday celebration, commemorating the crucifixion, became the most important celebration.
The Great Friday liturgy we use today has incorporated the prayers and prayer songs of the Syrian fathers such as Mar Aprem, Mar Yacob, Mar Balai, Mar Semavon Kookoyo, and Mar Severius. They lived between fourth and sixth centuries. It is reasonable to assume that the liturgy developed to its present form over a long period of time. It probably originated in an oral form, and it was written down later to achieve uniformity, and to be preserved for the posterity. The songs they chose to sing during the celebration were the most beautiful poems of the time. Though composed by different poets, these poems are based on a powerful parable that proclaims victory over death.
The Parable Behind the Great Friday Liturgy
Following the example of Jesus, the Syrian fathers used a parable to teach about Christ and about human life. Here is the parable:
Once upon a time, there was a great empire ruled by a great and powerful emperor. People lived under the emperor’s rule happily and peacefully until one day a fierce and ugly monster began to snatch people away and put them within his dungeon, and made them his slaves. The emperor decided to end the terror of the monster. He made a plan, and entrusted his son with this task. The prince approached the monster disguised as an ordinary, helpless citizen, and the monster caught him right away and put him in his den. Once inside, the prince killed the monster and delivered all the people who were imprisoned there.
The church fathers used this parable to teach the mystery of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A parable is an expanded metaphor. The empire in this parable is the world consisting of heaven and earth, and its emperor is God. Seated on the throne of fire, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. A mighty army of powerful angels, waiting to obey any orders from God, sing his praises. The fierce monster is no one else but Death. The prince of heaven is Jesus Christ. The questions why God became a man, and why he allowed himself to be crucified were answered by the parable as follows: God became a man to put an end to the terror of the monster of Death, and God in human form accepted death by His own will in order to enter the dungeon of Death.
The Poetic Techniques
Apart from the metaphors and parables, personification and irony are the two major poetic techniques used in these songs.
Personification is the technique of giving personality to something that is not a person. Death is personified. We also see the Sun, moon, earth, ocean, and trees being personified.
When what appears to us is the opposite of what we expect, we may call it an ironical situation. We see the poets’ imagination taking wings when they describe and explain the ironic situation when God the almighty is treated like a criminal and is crucified. Let us see a few examples:
He who is praised “Holy, holy” always by the Seraphim,
“Hang him on cross” screamed aloud the herd of priests.
This day when the Lord on cross asked for drinking water,
Ocean roared like a mighty monster.
Nails in the Lord’s hands did not melt,
Nor did his killers burn themselves
Dramatic irony is a situation when the reader of the story, or the audience of a drama know something important in the story, whereas the characters within the story remain ignorant of it. Favorite to the poets is the dramatic irony in the funny situation that none of his killers recognize Him, though all the non-human audience of the drama do recognize his true identity. Among the audience are: The army of angels from heaven; the Sun, moon and the stars from the sky; and the ocean, land and trees from the earth.
Stretched they wings to reach there and burn them God,
the father, forbade them, though, Saying that
he was tortured then by his own will.
That is how the army of God reacted. The poets come up with innumerable reasons for the solar eclipse that happened while Jesus was on the cross. A few examples:
Seeing his Lord naked on the cross with the robbers,
How can Sun, the loyal servant, shine upon him?
Seeing the Lord naked on the cross, Sun, his servant,
Closed his eyelids, unwilling to watch the disgrace.
While the Sun of righteousness has risen on cross,
How can I shine, the Sun enquired with wonder.
Not to see Noah’s master’s nakedness, like Shem, And Japheth,
Sun and moon hid their face in darkness
Along with the solar eclipse, there was an earthquake, too. Seeing his son on the cross, Mary asks the natural forces to drive away the people who crucified him.
Roar and let them flee with dread in their soul
Roar aloud, oh rocks and boulders,
And chide those who put him on cross
Naked is the Lord, oh nature, come on, awake!
Perhaps, hearing the heartbreaking plea of Mary,
Boulders broke, and volcanoes trembled.
Even the wooden cross, on which Jesus was nailed, weeps at the tragedy.
The Lord of all creation is nailed on me
Nurtured me he with rains and dew
Though this is what I offered him.
The Meaning of Great Friday
After Jesus taught in parables, his disciples would approach him in private and request him to explain the meaning of the parables. Let us imagine that we live in fourth century, and we happened to listen to Mar Aprem when he teaches using this parable. Later we approach him in private, and request him to explain the parable to us in plain language. How would Mar Aprem explain the parable to us?
He might explain to us that the parable reveals two basic existential issues: the problem of death, and the problem of broken relationships (spiritual death). The word death is used in the liturgy of Great Friday with two meanings: the death which Jesus died, and the death which Jesus killed. As a poet sings,
The death Jesus died was biological, but the death he killed was spiritual. The former is literal and the latter is metaphorical.
1. Death as a Toy-Monster
Fear of death has always been a basic existential problem. Death is certain, and it can arrive at any moment in any form without any warning. Thus it can cancel out our efforts to live at any moment. In fact the very existence is made meaningless by death.
Anything that exists within time limit must have a beginning and an end– birth and death. Only God exists beyond time limit; so God has no birth or death. Therefore, death is natural for anything that is not God. Death appears to be a dreadful monster for those who know only this much. But this is only one half of the truth. The other half of the truth is about the relationship between God, the deathless being, and all that die. The universe exists within God, the deathless being. Our life is one with God’s life. As nothing in the universe exists apart from God, birth and death seem to be mere appearances. If so, we have no birth or death, for we are one with God. As Jesus knew this truth, death, which is a dreadful serpent for others, was only a toy snake for him. Death cannot be avoided, but the fear of
death can easily be overcome with the awareness of the truth.
Death appears like a fearful monster in darkness or in dim light; its reality becomes clear in bright daylight. Darkness is caused due to the blindness of the inner eye. When the inner eye gets opened, the truth will be known. You shall know the truth, which will make you free, Jesus said. Thus it is the opening of our inner eye that saves us from the fear of death and many other fears and misconceptions.
2. Death as a Real Monster
The Death that Jesus killed was not a toy-snake but a real one. It is the same death that Adam died in the Garden of Eden. It is also the same death that the prodigal son died. Death ends life. The death of Adam was the end of the heavenly life he enjoyed in the garden. Killing this death means regaining the heavenly life that Adam enjoyed. Adam lost heavenly life (died) by disobeying God, but the second Adam regained the heavenly life by obeying God unto death.
Broken relationships is the primary existential problem for us and for any other beings. Our relationship with God, with each other, and with nature is broken. Right relationship with God and our fellow beings is the basis of healthy existence, and so broken relationship leads to unhealthy existence or even nonexistence. Broken relationships end heavenly life (death), and it is represented by a dreadful monster in the Great Friday liturgy. Though death is natural, death that ends heavenly life (spiritual death) is unnatural and undesirable. It is not a toy monster, but a real one. Jesus killed this monster by consciously maintaining oneness with God. Thus Jesus killed Death by his death. Jesus invites us to follow his example by doing the will of God, and be in his family. Whoever does my father’s will is my mother, sister, and brother, Jesus said.
Thus there are two kinds of death– one is like a real monster, but the other is like a toy-monster. The first step in facing the monster is to identify the real one. If the toy-monster appears to be the real one, we never face or conquer the real one. Jesus correctly identified the real monster, so he was never afraid of the toy-monster. Jesus invites us to use our inner eye so that we can identify the real monster, and conquer him.
Mar Aprem might modify the story a little bit to include a toy-monster as well.
Once upon a time, there was a great empire ruled by a great and powerful emperor. People lived under the emperor’s rule happily and peacefully until one day a monster began to snatch people away and put them within his dungeon, and made them his slaves. In addition to this monster, people were easily deceived by a huge toy-monster, which they mistook to be the real one, and they ran in fear. The real monster could easily hide behind the toy one, and catch the people who ran in fear. The emperor decided to end the terror of the monster. He made a plan, and entrusted his son with this task. The prince passed the toy-monster, and approached the real monster disguised as an ordinary, helpless citizen, and the monster caught him right away and put him in his den. Once inside, he killed the monster and delivered all the people who were imprisoned there.
Mar Aprem might warn us against a literal interpretation of such parables. We should never make the silly mistake of assuming that this story, which is a product of human imagination, is a historical event. We should not be so foolish as Jesus’ disciples when they took literally the advice of Jesus “Beware of the sour dough of Pharisees”. It is like a fairy tale for children which expresses certain aspects of the reality. According to this story, the monster was killed by the prince, and our commonsense tells us that someone dead is no more alive. But the truth is that our separation from God, the real monster, needs to be killed by each of us following the example of Jesus.
Thus the Great Friday celebration teaches us how to face our most basic existential problems. First, we need to identify between our real issue by differentiating it from what appears to be the issue. We often mistake death to be an issue, but really it is not. Our real issue is broken relationships. Our relationship with God, fellow beings, and with nature — all are broken. Once we correctly identify our real issues, we need to explore how we can effectively find a solution to these issues. Mending our broken relationship with God is primary. We need to accept Jesus as our role model and follow the will of God even if we have to give up our life. Once we mend our relationship with God, we can easily mend our relationship with our fellow beings and with nature. In short, our issues are spiritual darkness and spiritual death, and the solutions are light (with inner eye open) and life (with our relationships mended).
Read this in Malayalam here
Read the story of Good Friday in English and Malayalam