I took this video at the Good Friday (Μεγάλη Παρασκευή) liturgy that I attended at Saint Nectarios in Roslindale. In the Orthodox religion, the Good Friday service is understood as a funeral service for Christ, and the video shows the part of the service when the επιτάφιος(epitaph), decked in flowers and meant to symbolize Christ’s funeral bier, is taken outside, with the congregation following in procession. The burial hymns that accompany this service are among the most beautiful Byzantine hymns ever produced in the Greek language—I make that distinction because some of the Russian hymns are far more beautiful—with the main hymns spanning a period of hymnography stretching from the 9th century to the 16th century CE.
For me, however, the επιτάφιος is less a symbol of Christ’s tomb, than of the creation of the tomb myth. What I mean is that the επιτάφιος represents the way in which the earliest Christian communities (some of them anyway) “prettied up” and romanticized Jesus’ martyrdom and brutal death. Just as the επιτάφιος is itself adorned with flowers, fragrance, beautifully carved wood, and richly embroidered cloth, the story of Jesus’ death was gradually embellished and adorned with such mythical elements as a freshly hewn garden tomb. The επιτάφιος symbolizes not history, but the creation of story by the faith community.
The garden tomb plays a vital role in traditional Christian doctrine. It was, after all, the empty tomb on Easter morning that offered the very first real evidence of Christ’s resurrection. Thus, the empty tomb is the foundation upon which the resurrection story is built. This can be seen when someone like myself denies the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection as a historical event, and a conservative traditionalist (i.e. a fundamentalists or evangelical) counters such an assertion with the question, “But what about the empty tomb? If Christ didn’t rise again as his followers said he did, why didn’t their enemies just produce his body?” This is an interesting question, and one that John Dominic Crossan handles quite skillfully in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.
Crossan suggests that the burial of the Historical Jesus was not a pretty one. A limed pit, not a garden tomb, according to Crossan, was the Historical Jesus’ final resting place. As for the body, it quickly became carrion for the dogs and other scavenging animals. Of course, it should be noted that the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection, though it arose relatively early, did not develop overnight. Moreover, there were some Christian communities for whom the idea of a bodily resurrection never formed part of their belief system. Scholars (who practice source criticism) point out that at least some of the earliest written sources upon which the canonical Gospels were based did not contain a resurrection account at all.
For those communities who did develop a resurrection story, they invented a burial story to accompany it, because without a burial story, there is no resurrection story. It was no accident, moreover, that a statement of Christ’s burial made its way into both the Apostles’ Creed and later the Nicene Creed. This was because Christ’s burial, like his virgin birth and his resurrection, was contested by some members of the diverse Christian community. In other words, Christ’s burial was not so obvious to the Christian community or so universally recognized as fact that it could go unmentioned. It was part of the evolving story but because it was contested, it had to become enshrined as dogma.
Rather than thinking of these stories as “lies,” we should understand them as part of the natural process of posthumously mythologizing a beloved and charismatic leader. It is precisely that process that the επιτάφιος symbolizes. The hideous reality of a brutal execution was transformed into something beautiful. Sadly, however, the Historical Jesus was buried in the process.