RAMSHA, Evening Liturgy on the Great Saturday

For Ramsha, the Evening Liturgy of Resurrection Sunday, the liturgical Calendar prescribes four Readings from the Scriptures, two from the Old Testament and two from the New. Since this celebration takes place on the Great Saturday evening, and because it is a preparation to the solemn celebra­tion of the Resurrection, these Readings are to be understood in the context of the burial and the vigil at the tomb of our Lord.

Qeryana I (Old Testament Reading I): Genesis 22:1-19
Qeryana II (Old Testament Reading II): Jonah 2:1-10
Engarta (Epistle Reading): 1 Cor 1:18-31
Evangalion (Gospel): Mt 27:62-66
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Qeryane : OT Readings


a. Reading from the Book of Genesis
The Episode selected from Gen 22:1-19 is the touching story of Abraham's obedience and his faithfulness to God's com­mand. The essence of religion is obedience and faithfulness to the God who reveals himself and this is true of the religious response in both the Old and the New Testaments. The classical form of it in the OT may be the sentence "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord speaks" (Is 1:2). The real worship of God consists in obedience: "To obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam 15:22). The narration of the fall of mankind in Genesis shows that the essence of sin consists in disobedience to the will of God. Jesus' life on earth can be summarized in his obedience to the will of his Father. His prayer at the Gethsemane is a beautiful example for this (Mt 26:39.42). In short, obedience occupies a key position in the history of God's salvation. Obedi­ence to revealed truths is an expression of the freedom of the children of God; it is the genuine devotion to God; it is the authentic life of one who has been made subject to God's dominion and permeated with divine life.


In this connection it is better to remember the true meaning of ‘Amen’ in liturgical celebrations. The whole Liturgy being a response to the call of God, ‘Amen’ becomes the summarized expression of Liturgy itself. Christ has uttered it in its perfect sense and thus accomplished the human salvation; by uttering the same 'Amen', each one of us has to participate in this redemptive Mystery and thus bring it to the eschatological consummation.


According to the story told in this passage, God's demand was, indeed a great challenge to Abraham's faith. He was asked to sacrifice his only son. It seemed to him that God is des­troying all his hopes of progeny and thus overthrowing his own promise: "You shall be the father of a multitude of nations'' (Gen 17: He was asked to offer his Jahid (MT), Monogenes, 'only son' Isaac, whom he loved - the agapetos, as a burnt offering (v. 2). Here the emphasis is on the greatness of sacri­fice. Sacrifice is a ritual expression of the supreme dominion of God. It is an acknowledgement of God's right over everything created, together with an earnest desire of man to draw nearer to him. According to v. 12, the true essence of sacrifice consists in purity of heart and inward disposition. In this context, God proposes to Abraham that he should sacrifice his only, beloved son, and thereby acknowledge God's dominion, and so draw nearer to Him. In order to test Abraham radically, it seems, he was asked to perform his sacrifice in a distant land on a certain mountain. Abraham did exactly what he was asked to do by the Lord - a perfect obedience to the will of God.


The episode of Abraham's obedience and God’s interven­tion asking him to offer the ram instead of his son (vv.12-13), points to the contrast between patriarchal sacrificial practice and human sacrifices, especially that of infants, very common among the Canaanites. Under heathen influence human sacrifice was practised in Israel (cf 2 Kg 16:3) against Israelite law and prophetic warnings.


Verses 15-18 narrate the results of Abraham's obedience and faith. God swears by himself (the only case in Genesis) to accomplish all his promises to Abraham and to bless him abund­antly. He was so pleased with his servant's obedience. Conse­quently, not only Abraham, but all nations will be blessed (cf Gen 12:3) through his posterity. This is a Messianic revelation of God's plan to bless all nations through his elected One. In fact the sin of Adam's disobedience is perfectly atoned by Jesus' obedience to the Will of the Father.


For St. Paul (Rom 4), and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (ll:17-19), this episode in Genesis is a type of all who have their salvation through faith in God. Isaac, the only son of Abraham, who was led to the land of Ammorites to be sacrificed, is also a type of Jesus Christ, the only Begotten of the Father (Rom 8:32), who was led to Gagulta to be immolated. Thus the liturgical reading of this episode in the Ramsha of Resurrection Sunday, disposes the worshiping community to meditate both on the only Son, who was sacrificed for the sal­vation of all, and also on the Father's blessings which, as pre­figured already in the OT, are bestowed upon all through him!


b. Reading from the Book of Jonah
Whatever be the conclusions consequent upon the modem studies on Jonah, its literary character, date of composition and so on, we have to take into account first, the comparison drawn by our Lord between the sojourn of Jonah in the whale and his own Resurrection. The principal reason for this is the liturgical reading of the present text (Jon 2:1-10) in the Ramsha of Resur­rection Sunday. Our Lord thrice refers to Jonah as a sign and type of Himself (Mt 12:39-41; 16:4; Lk 11:29-30), And in Mt 12:40 he says clearly that he too will be in the heart of the earth three days as Jonah was in the belly of the fish. In the context of the present liturgical celebration, which is a prepar­ation for the actual celebration of Resurrection, we can under­stand the relevance of this passage from Jonah very well.


The present passage is the psalm uttered by Jonah from the depth of the whale's belly. Jonah was asked by God to preach repentance to the people of Niniveh.  Jawnan, Jonah, comes from the word jawna, ‘a dove.’ According to some, writes N. Arbuckle, it signifies the chosen people of God, the Israelites. The reason for them, it seems, is that Israel was sometimes symbolized by a dove (cf Hos 7:11; Ps 68:13; Song 2:14; 4:1; etc.). Niniveh, the capital of Assyria, stands here for the whole pagan world who does not know the Lord. In this context, Jonah is denying to accomplish Israel's duty to bring gentiles too to the knowledge and mercy of God, which he was asked to do personally.[1] Instead, he fled away from God's presence on the pretext that God's justice might work among the Ninivites even otherwise. He said to himself: "I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, patient and abounding in steadfast love; and you change the evil" (Jon 4: 2).


He was not conscious, it seems, that God's justice is, in fact, his mercy. The divine providence, however, defeated his plans and threw him deep into the belly of the fish. There he opened his eyes and understood the power of the Lord. So he raised his voice to thank God for the salvation He has prepared for him even in the abyss of waters. It is this thanksgiving psalm of Jonah from the belly of the fish, the East Syriac Fathers have chosen as reading in the Ramsha of Resurrection Sunday. The liturgical reading ends with the command of the Lord to the fish to vomit Jonah in the dry land.


This passage from Jonah in the Resurrection liturgy is again to convince the worshiping community that the Resurrec­tion of our Lord is a fulfilment of all its types, symbols and prophecies in the Old Testament.


Engartha, the Epistle or Sliha, the Apostle
The most important theme expounded in 1 Cor 1:18-31, the present liturgical reading, is the "Message of the Cross", which is foolishness to human wisdom and God's saving power to the believers. It is the story of the self-sacrifice of a “man” who is worshiped by his believers as the Son of God. The Greeks, who were generally taken to be highly edu­cated according to human standards, considered pain, suffering and death of a divine being as foolish talk. Using all rational means they had tried to understand God and his ways, but they could never reach a point of believing in a God who takes upon himself suffering and death to save his creatures. So, the message of the Cross remained something foolish for the Greeks.


The Jews, on the contrary, were always looking for signs (Mt 12:38; 16:4; Jn 4:48; 6:30). They expected some sort of heavenly or earthly sign to mark the coming of the Messiah. Of course, the prophets have already described all the signs, concerning the coming of the Messiah. But they had grown too materialistic in their understanding of these divine signs. They expected a powerful Messiah, who would establish an earthly kingdom, prosperous and glorious in all respects, defeating all the forces and powers opposing God. Hence, naturally, Jesus' suffering and death on the Cross was an offence to the Jews.


We must not forget here, that St. Paul is speaking from his own personal experience of the Risen Lord, which resulted in his own perfect conversion. He says that "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (v. 25). The foolishness of divine love is wiser than the wisdom of human pride. It is because of such foolishness he emptied himself and took upon himself the weak human nature, in order to make man understand the true nature of sin and death. In ordinary human experience, death is the greatest weakness of man. Everybody is helpless in his encounter with death. But in the case of Jesus, it was the contrary. He embraced it because it was the sign of his victory. Thus, what is weakness in Christ according to human considerations, namely, his suffering and death, excels all human strength. From his own experience with Christ, St. Paul now understands that wisdom and strength were to be found in weakness and life in death.


Another theme expounded in the present passage is the selection of the insignificant to this message of the Cross. The purpose of the Lord in making such a selection is, according to St Paul, that they might not boast in their own power, but in the power of the One who has selected them. God has not chosen hakime, 'the wise', hailthane, 'the powerful', or bnai-tohma rabba, 'the well-born' to this special message; but saklawhi d-alma, 'the ignorant', krihawhi d-alma, 'the weak', ailen da-bsir tohmhon b-alma, 'the poor', and maslaiya, 'the despised.’ St. Paul compares them to ailen d-lait ennon, 'those who have nothing' accord­ing to human standards, precisely because he wants to assert the power of God's action. Whatever the Corinthians have, is from Jesus Christ. Christ is Hekemtha, 'the Wisdom', Zaddiqutha 'the Righteousness', Qaddisutha, 'the Holiness', and Purqana, 'the Redemption.’ Now, if they boast, it must be in Jesus Christ who released them from the bondage of sin, guilt, alienation and hostility. Thus their glory in Jesus Christ is, in fact, higher than that of the most glorious person in the world.


Evangalion, the Gospel
The episode of the guard at the tomb of Jesus Christ is something unique in St. Matthew. It is this particular Gospel passage, Mt 27:62-66, that has been chosen by the East Syriac Fathers to be proclaimed in the Ramsha of Resurrection Sunday. It may be because it was understood as the best link between the burial and the Resurrection of the Lord. Scholars are at a loss to under­stand the real significance of this episode in the Gospel tradition.  For many of them, it is an apologetic text. The purpose of the Evangelist, it seems, is to refute the slander that Jesus' body was stolen by his disciples. Since the chief priests and the Pharisees set guard on the tomb after sealing it safe, they could never claim that it was stolen.


According to the present Gospel passage, the priests and Pharisees approached Pilate on the Sabbath, and compelled him to set a guard on Jesus' Tomb. If it is true, says W. Barclay: "no other incident in the gospel story more plainly shows how desperately eager the Jewish authorities were totally to eliminate Jesus.” They broke even their most sacred Sabbath laws to achieve their purpose.


The Pesitta version of the Bible speaks of it as "the next day, that is, the day after Friday" (Mt 27:62). Hence it is clear that Pharisees approached Pilate on the Sabbath. 'Arubta’ means 'the eve’, or ‘the day of Preparation', esp. the eve of Sabbath, i. e., ‘Friday.’


"According to Iso'-Dad of Merv, in this context, the Evan­gelist stresses on the day of Preparation, even to indicate the Sabbath. Only two days, says he, in the week have special names, Sabtha, the Sabbath, and 'Arubta, the day of Preparation. All other days are designated as the first, second, third, fourth and fifth day of the week. The sixth day of the week gets this special name, says he, only at the time of our Lord's Passion. He elaborates in his commentary several reasons for this parti­cular name 'Arubta, the day of Preparation. In order to under­stand better the similes and metaphors used by East Syriac Fathers in the liturgical prayers and hymns, we give here below the important reasons, he has brought forward:


a. The extraordinary event of sun-set on this day of cruci­fixion.
b. On this day, one of the most decisive actions of divine pro­vidence happened, namely, the sun of divine care set from the Nation, namely, the Jews, and dawned among the Nations, i. e., the Gentiles.
c. On this day, old things set among new things because every­thing was renewed at the Passion of our Lord.
d. On this day, at the Passion of Jesus evil things set and new things dawned.
e. On this day, the Cherub with the sword disappeared from the gate of Paradise and the soul of our Lord accompanied by the souls of the penitent thief and the righteous men entered it.
f. On this day, the special status of the Jewish people ceased and the Jews and the gentiles mingled with each other, namely, the new people of God born at the death of the Lord includes both the Jews and the Gentiles and in it there is no distinction between them.
g. The death of Jesus on the sixth day is a prophecy fulfilled that on the same day after six thousand years the sun of this world will disappear for good, and thereafter there will be no more days. The temporary darkness at Jesus' death is a symbol of the complete darkness to come on that day.
h. It is on this day that Adam received life (Gen 1:26-31) and for Isho-Dad, it is on the same day that he sinned and de­stroyed his divine life. Hence our Lord suffered penalties on the same day to pay the penalties for Adam and his posterity. It is in the evening that Adam showed disobedi­ence and sinned, and so at the same time our Lord in per­fect obedience to the will of the Father atoned for it. At the 9th hour Adam went out of Paradise and at the same time our Lord entered it. Adam fell by means of wood and he was saved by means of the wood of the Cross. Sin entered the world through a woman and salvation through a virgin. The sin of Adam and consequent death was a condemnation of the world; but Jesus' death is a victory over death. And finally, God's curse on Adam brought judge­ment to the world; but Jesus' death on the Cross i. e., the death of a cursed one to the general public, is a source of complete blessing.


We can also read a strange irony in the present passage, which we will come across in one of the hymns for this day. The Jews, who could not accept Jesus, have now taken very seriously his, prediction that he would rise up on the third day (Mt 26:61). Later on, they themselves give advice to the guards to spread the false story that Jesus' body was stolen, when they were asleep (Mt 28:13).


Pilate's answer to their request for W. Barclay is a challenge to them: .”.. go, make it secure as you can" (Mt 27:65). "It is equivalent to say," says he, "keep Christ in the tomb - if you can. They had not realized one thing - that there was not a tomb in the world which could imprison the Risen Christ. Not all men's plans could bind the Risen Lord. The man who seeks to put bonds on Jesus Christ is on a hopeless assignment."[3]


The spiritual message behind this episode is of great im­portance for us Christians. The Jewish authorities tried all their best to put an end to Jesus' life and his teachings. They had even broken their most sacred laws of the Sabbath in order to work out their conspiracy. In the words of our Lord himself, they appear to be "wiser in their own generation than the sons of the light" (Lk 16:8). They took all kinds of precautions to frustrate Jesus' prediction about his Resurrection on the third day. But "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25). God's plan is different and his will is always effective. Thus the precautions, the Jews took, to avoid Jesus' Resurrection, became its greatest proof. According to Isho-Dad of Merv, the sealing of Jesus' tomb is the Antitype of Daniel in lion's den (Dan 6:17). He continues to say that this sealing became a more powerful proof for Jesus' Resurrection. In the case of Daniel, God's power was revealed in protecting him from the mouths of lions. But here, in the case of Jesus, it was revealed in not allowing Jesus' body to see corruption.

In conclusion, these liturgical readings from the OT and the NT highlight the significance of our Lord's suffering, death and Resurrection. It is rather difficult for men to understand God's ways of salvation. Yet deep faith in Jesus Christ helps them to discern the divine plan and commit themselves to it. Moreover, there is a special emphasis all through on the real essence of sacrifice.




[1] Cf art. Jonah, in NELSON 706

[2] Cf ISHO-DAD of Merv, pp. 115-116

[3] W. BARCLAY, The Gospel of Matthew, 2, p. 375


Father Varghese Pathikulangara, CMI

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