On Lazarus Saturday, we commemorate the raising by our Lord Jesus Christ of his friend Lazarus from the dead. The effects of this miracle were immediate: it caused many of the Jews to put their faith in the Jesus, and it led to the decision of the Sanhedrin to have him killed.
Lazarus Saturday comes eight days before the feast of the Lord's own Resurrection; it is both a prelude to Pascha, and a sign that the Lord's own Resurrection applies to us as well. Immediately before raising Lazarus, our Lord's conversation with Lazarus' sister Martha show the effect of Jesus' teaching of a universal resurrection of the dead "on the last day." This triumph over death may not come as quickly as we wish, but it is no longer simply a theological opinion, as it had been among the Jews up until that time. With the raising of Lazarus, in the sight of many, it is an accomplished fact.
Lazarus Saturday and the the day follows, Palm Sunday, are neither part of the forty-day Great Fast, nor of the Great and Holy Week of the Lord's passion and Resurrection. They form a sort of bridge between the two - one adorned with signs of joy and triumph in advance of the terrible events of Great Week.
In the liturgical books, this day is also referred to as "Palm Saturday" (Subbota Vaj).
The Great Fast ends on the eve of Lazarus Saturday. In the hymns of Vespers (which is ordinarily celebrated as part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts), we hear:
Having completed the forty days to the profit of our souls, let us exclaim:
Rejoice, town of Bethany, home of Lazarus.
Rejoice, Mary and Martha, his sisters,
Tomorrow Christ will arrive
to give life by his word to your brother who has died.
Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem; the Lord will return to Bethany briefly after the events of Palm Sunday.
The readings at Vespers are for the conclusion of the Great Fast. From Genesis (49:53 - 50:26), we hear of the death of the patriarch Jacob in Egypt, and the forgiveness of his son Joseph toward the brothers who had sold him into slavery. At the end, Joseph himself dies in old age, having assured his brothers than one day God would lead them out of Egypt to the land that God had promised to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
We also hear the last verses of the book of Proverbs, which has been accompanied us through the Great Fast. In this verses, the writer praises the virtues of a worthy wife. In traditional Jewish households, these words are sung on Friday evenings before the Sabbath meal.
In the late evening, Great Compline is celebrated. From now through the end of Palm Sunday, bright vestments are worn by the clergy, in place of the dark vestments of the Great Fast, and Great and Holy Week.
At Matins, we first hear the troparion of Lazarus Saturday, which will be repeated on Palm Sunday:
Christ our God,
before your passion you confirmed our common resurrection
when you raised Lazarus from the dead.
Therefore, like the children we carry the symbols of victory
and cry out to you, the Victor over Death:
Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
On this Saturday, we sing hymns at Matins that are normally reserved for Sunday:
- The evlogitaria of the Resurrection ("Hosts of Angels"), describing the visit of the myrrh-bearing women to the tomb of Christ;
- The hymn, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ"
- The dialog between deacon and faithful, "Holy is the Lord our God"
In the Byzantine Rite, Saturdays are associated with remembrance of the dead; here, the Church emphasized that our Lord has power over death, and that the victory he will achieve in the events of the coming week applies to all.
At the Divine Liturgy
Just as on the Saturdays of the Great Fast, the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is celebrated on the morning of Lazarus Saturday. (Saturday and Sunday are the two great Eucharistic days of the Byzantine Rite.)
Along with the troparion of the day (above), we repeat the kontakion from Matins:
Christ, the Joy of All,
the Truth, the Light, the Life, and the Resurrection of the World,
has appeared to us on earth because of his goodness.
He became the pattern of our resurrection,
granting forgiveness to all.
In place of the Thrice-holy Hymn (Holy God), we sing Galatians 3:27:
All you who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Alleluia!
This hymn marks Lazarus Saturday as one of the ancient baptismal days of the Church. Through baptism, we die with Christ, to rise again to new life with God, in the forgiveness of our sins.
The apostolic reading of the day, Hebrews 12:28 - 13:8, is not associated with the raising of Lazarus; instead, it is a continuation of the reading of the Letter to the Hebrews on the Saturdays of the Great Fast. With Lazarus Saturday, we come to the end of this book of the Bible.
The day's Gospel, from the Gospel according to Saint John (11:1-45), is an account of the entire story of the death and restoration of Lazarus.
In place of the hymn to the Theotokos, "It is truly proper to glorify you", we sing the irmos of the ninth Ode from the second Canon of Matins; this marks the day as an important feast. But there is no magnification sung on this day.
The Communion Hymn, taken from Psalm 8, prepares us for Palm Sunday:
From the mouths of infants and children, you have fashioned perfect praise. Alleluia!
The verses of the psalm, which are sung in alternation with the Communion Hymn, praise God's creation - and praise God for having made man "little less than the angels". Through his suffering, death and resurrection, the Lord restores both fallen nature, and fallen mankind.
- Father Basil Shereghy. The Liturgical Year of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
(Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1968.)
- A Monk of the Eastern Church (Father Lev Gilet). The Year of Grace of the Lord.
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001.)