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The Burial of the Icon Epitaphios - St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church

The liturgy of the Burial of the Icon may be a new tradition here at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, but it actually connects Latino families to their cultural and religious heritage. It enriches all congregations of our parish with an ancient ritual.

In Latin America, many have grew up with rituals and processions during Holy Week. Perhaps the most dramatic one is the processional of “del Santo Entierro”(the procession of the Holy Burial). A long processional starts in the church and goes through the streets carrying the image of the dead body of Christ. It is said that processions are the most inclusive religious devotions because everybody is included, those who choose to be participate in it, those who are passersby, and those who are standing on the doors of the houses and windows, waiting for the procession.

The Procession of the Holy Burial in Latin America is rooted in ancient Eastern tradition of the Holy Burial of the Icon, or Epitaphios. The Epitaphios (from the Greek word, Επιτάφιος) is an icon that represents and depicts Christ death and entombment. It is used on Good Friday or Holy Saturday morning. It has several elements that remind us the funeral of a relative, since God through Christ adopts us.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…under the law, to redeem those…under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” Galatians 4:4-5

The liturgy will invite everyone to feel the loss of a loved one and follow the steps of a funeral. People arrive at the church, walk to where the body is laid down, recognize the person of Jesus, say a prayer, and then take a seat until the liturgy begins.

At St. Stephen’s, the fire for the candles and charcoal comes from outside the church, since all the symbolism of fire was removed on the night of Maundy Thursday with the stripping and washing of the altars.

The liturgy begins when the icon bearers bring the icon to the center of the congregation. Lights and incense are in use. The journey to Resurrection begins. We recognize the pain and the suffering marked in Jesus’s own body. We hear the Holy Scriptures and pray for all Creation, all peoples and societies, all religions, and recognize that in the solitude of this Vigil, God weeps with us, over such injustice. The crime – of the death of an innocent – echoes through the centuries, and is still happening in our own day. The cry of God is not stuck in the past but is ongoing whenever our brothers and sisters are killed unjustly.

The burial of the icon isn’t a religious devotion about a historical event in the past. But it is a reminder that crimes against God’s children are still happening in our own society. The dead body in front of us is also the body of the martyrs and saints – like the five icons of Lent this year: the environmentalist Berta Caceres, immigrants like Joseph and Mary, people of color like Martin de Porres, advocates of the poor like Dorothy Day, and voices of freedom like Marsha Johnson.

Berta Caceres funeral procession on the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The second part of the liturgy of the Burial of the Icon begins with the Holy Procession to the symbolic Tomb. Just like the funeral of a loved one, people carry the flowers that will cover the body. When the body is laid out, people come closer to say a prayer, for one last look, one last touch. Flowers are placed and the thurifers fill the space with incense. The time for deeper connection with God the Creator has arrived. Together we weep for the loss of those we loved. God is not indifferent to the pain and with us, He bows to the suffering of Christ.

The priest taps the floor three times using a cross and proclaims: “We bow down to your sufferings, O Christ!” People may bow down or prostrate themselves in a sign of respect for the struggle of that body in promoting life.

The symbolism is a bridge with the Easter Vigil’s threefold announcement that Christ is our Light: “The Light of Christ! Thanks be to God!” The liturgy of the Burial of Christ is the mirror of the Easter Vigil liturgy. On Friday evening, all lights and sounds are extinguished to reach solemn darkness and silent expectation. However, the Easter Vigil that begins in darkness, will become the Feast of Joy and Life in the Risen Christ.

Below you will find some Epitaphios from different churches and countries. Our church, the Anglican Communion, has kept the tradition, and it is becoming more popular every year.

Epitaphios from around the world
Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns – you can find many stories about the tradition of Hot Cross Buns in the evening of Good Friday. At St. Stephen’s we mark the end of fasting by distributing the Hot Cross Buns at the end of the service. If you are interested, we would love to create a team of bakers who would dedicate their gift of culinary art to a sacred ministry through the year. If you have interest, contact me through the following email address: samdessordi@yahoo.co.uk

Sermon on John 3:1-17

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent (2017) on John 3: 1-17 - Fr. Sam Dessórdi

Have you ever heard the word Epitaphio? In Brazil I grew up listening this word on the radio during Holy Week but I never gave much attention to the meaning of the word. But, I new the effect it had on people.

This week while planning the rituals for the Paschal Triduum I had the opportunity to explore more deeply the etymology of the word Epitaphio. It comes from the Greek language and means "Lamentation upon the Grave". Many of us have experienced this when we lose a beloved one and mourn upon their grave.

From before the Great Schism of the church, in the Byzantine period, Christians have been reenacting the moment of the death and burial of Jesus. The ritual has been modified according to the church, the culture and the symbolism of different countries. In our days Epitaphios are done by churches who maintain the connection with traditions from the undivided Church in the early centuries. They carry the icon of the burial of Jesus into the streets, not to proclaim that God is dead but to reaffirm that God has done amazing things for us and that the final promise is that death no longer has no power over us.

God’s Son will be brought to life. But that’s not the only reason for the ritual of the burial of the icon.

You may be wondering why Fr. Sam is bringing up this symbolism on the second Sunday of Lent.

I ask you, who was there on Golgotha at the time of the death of Jesus, and who was there removing the dead body of Christ from the cross to the grave? The Bible and tradition says: some of the women, who followed Jesus and John the disciple, were by the cross. For the removal of the body the Bible talks explicitly about two important men, Joseph of Arymathea and the character from today’s Gospel, Nicodemus.

Somebody once said, “Love is proved by deeds!” – in the moment of death, in crisis, and feeling hopeless, most of Jesus disciples were somewhere else. Only these very few stayed until the end.

Why do you think it matters to know that Joseph and Nicodemus were there when Mary needed help? Lets take a look at this scene:

All we know of Nicodemus in the Bible is from the Gospel of John. In today’s Gospel, he is described as a Pharisee. The Pharisees were fundamentalists in keeping the Law and often opposed Jesus throughout His ministry. Jesus often strongly denounced them for their legalism. Saul of Tarsus (who became the apostle Paul) was a Pharisee.

The evangelist John describes Nicodemus as a leader of the local Jewish council. He was an important man and we realize that Jesus is not a false prophet because he comes to meet Jesus. He came by night to be sure very few will see him talking to Jesus. He is afraid, possibly ashamed, because he is an important man going to meet with Jesus who is hated by many Pharisees. In his process of rediscovering God he feels the need for action. Walking towards Jesus is the response to God. “Love is proved by action”.

He calls Jesus “Rabi”. This Pharisee recognizes the authority of Jesus. That is a big step. It is necessary to be very humble in taking that step. To recognize that sometimes you are not yet on the right path and that God sometimes surprises us revealing himself/herself through the unexpected.

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Says Nicodemus. Translating what he is saying: What do I do now? I spent my life affirming one belief and now God surprises me with a man who heals and sets people free from their chains. How can I change my heart like that?

The Gospel of John doesn’t say much about Nicodemus, but it says what we need to know about him.

He appears in today’s Gospel. In the very beginning of Chapter 3. He seems decided to meet Jesus but also afraid of being seen with him.

John mentions Nicodemos again at the very end of his Gospel. Nicodemus broke apart the fear that would hold him back. Even though being an important Pharisee he steps up from his place of authority to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus.

In those days, A crucified person could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery; there was a strict law against it. Joseph and Nicodemus knew this law, and on the way out to Golgotha they decided to bury Jesus in Joseph's new family tomb, hewn out of solid rock, located a short distance north of Golgotha and across the road leading to Samaria. No one had ever lain in this tomb, and they thought it appropriate that the Master should rest there. These two important Pharisees had kept their faith in Jesus more or less a secret, although their fellow Sanhedrists / Pharisees had long suspected them, even before they withdrew from the council. From now on they were the most outspoken disciples of Jesus in all Jerusalem.

The tradition says that about half past four o'clock the burial procession of Jesus of Nazareth started from Golgotha toward Joseph's tomb across the way. The body was wrapped in a linen sheet as the four men carried it, followed by the faithful women, watchers from Galilee. Those who bore the material body of Jesus to the tomb were: Joseph, Nicodemus, John, and a Roman centurion.

Today when we retell the story of Nicodemus meeting Christ, we are invited to meditate on how many times each day we encounter God and how transformative it can be to accept being born again, and again, and again. Conversion/metanoia is the capacity of reshaping our beliefs so God can enter our hearts like the unexpected guest in Emmaus, or like the visit of God to Abraham.

Abraham and Nicodemus, were both old men who could have chosen to be stubborn. Abraham for example was approximately 75 years old and he could have said NO. He had a long life, why make profound changes in his life now? Why leave his home, his land, and engage in a new moment? The answer is because When God calls, is impossible to resist God’s will.

The Gospel of John is well known for the images of Light and Darkness. Nicodemus emerges out of the night’s darkness. He is the first believer that comes in the dark of night. Jesus says to him: “Those who do what is true come to the Light, so that it may be seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Today you are called by Jesus to do what is true to the light. “Love is proved by deeds!” Don’t be afraid to answer that call and follow because God may be waiting for you on the other side of your story. Amen.

Created By
Fr. Sam Dessordi
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