Truly, truly, I say to you, He who hears My word and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
John 5:24
On Good Friday night, most churches will make an elaborate procession outside of the Church with the Epitaphios. (The Epitaphios is actually the embroidered cloth with the entombment of Christ depicted on it. “Epi” means “in” and “Tafos” means “tomb.” The “Kouvouklion” is the wood carved “tomb” in which the Epitaphios is placed. So the Kouvouklion with the Epitaphios inside is what is carried around the church.) In most churches, upon reaching the front door of the church, the Kouvouklion is raised up and all the faithful pass beneath the Epitaphios.
This is a ritual that actually has some meaning. Allow me to describe the scene.
The procession takes place at night. In some parts of the country, it may be cold. Outside churches, the street might be busy with cars passing by and honking. We definitely feel like we are in the world—noisy, distractions, we might even feel misunderstood, perhaps even a little embarrassed. The procession goes around the church and then comes to the front door. The Kouvoukion with Epitaphios inside is raised. (In our church, we actually have stilts that go underneath it). If one looks through the stilts, there is a narrow path to go under the Epitaphios and back into the church. Looking through that path, one sees the bright lights of the church, and the warmth of the sanctuary. There is one way back into the warmth and security of the church. One has to pass under the Epitaphios in order to enter the church.
Our life is a lot like this scene. Heaven is like the church. The outside world outside the church is our life. There is only one way to get from life to heaven, and that is to die. One has to pass through death in order to get to eternal life.
If a person doesn’t get in the line to go under the Epitaphios they cannot enter the church. This is the only way people can enter. The way is narrow as well. If a person does not hear the message that they need to go under the Epitaphios in order to enter the church, they are not likely going to get in line. If a person ignores the message, they will not be in the line either.
In our Christian life, we have to get through the narrow gate in order to get into heaven. Jesus says in Matthew 7: 13-14, ‘Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  And in order to get through the gate, we have to be in the line. And in order to be in the line we need to have heard the message of Christ and chosen to get into the line.
Let’s redefine some words. In secular terms, we call “life” that time we spend alive on earth. “Death” is the moment that earthly life ends. In spiritual terms, life is defined as being with God. Death is defined as being absent from God, or eternal condemnation. We are all going to have eternal existence. Our soul will either enjoy eternal life in the presence of God or eternal condemnation and absence from God. The time we spend alive on earth is our time of preparation for the eventual day when we will pass on, and we will either go to eternal life or eternal condemnation.
Our walking under the Epitaphios is a rehearsal for the day we are going to do it for real. One day we will all pass from the busy world, through death, and we will either go to eternal life or eternal punishment. Here’s the thing, though, we don’t know how many years of rehearsals we will have until it’s time for the real thing. We can’t count on 80 years, or 60, or 20 more, or even one more. We’ve got to make not only this Good Friday count, we’ve got to be in the line for Christ at all times, because we never know the day when we will enter that narrow gateway of death.
When we are in the line outside the church, we can see the church. We can see the warmth. We can anticipate our turn. We can even look forward to re-entering the church. And it’s the same thing in our spiritual life. We can look forward to heaven, even before we get there. We can take comfort being in the line, that when it’s our turn, we’ve heard the message and are ready to go.
There is very little Scripture in the Good Friday evening service. There is a lot of pageantry, and there is a tendency to just march through the “rituals” without any meaning behind them.
Every year, there will be people who pass under the Epitaphios who don’t know that this is their dress rehearsal, the last time they get to practice before they do it for real. What if that is you? Are you ready? Are you in the line? Have you heard the message? Does your life reflect that?
There is a saying in sports, “You play how you practice.” How is your practice of Christianity going? Reflect on that as you pass under the Epitaphios tonight. And if it is not going well, ride the feelings you have tonight by committing to making a greater effort in your practice.
Stepping aside from the conversation on eternal life and just talking about our time on earth, many of us feel like we are shivering in the cold as we cope with stress and disappointment. The Church stands as a beacon of Light in the cold world. Christ stands as our eternal Light in the midst of all of our stresses, our sorrows and even our joys. The procession is also a reminder that we should be running to Christ and to the Church in all times and in all circumstances.
This message is dedicated to the memory of Artemis (Artie) Palios, the dedicated choir director at St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida, where I currently serve. She was also one of my closest friends, like a second mom to me. She passed away suddenly on, April 18, 2019. I never would have thought that Good Friday 2018 was her dress rehearsal, that she wouldn’t be here that year to pass under the Epitaphios as she did for 81 years. I dare say that she was in the line and attentive to the message, and when God called her name to pass through the narrow gate, she was ready. Her sudden passing magnifies the Good Friday evening service, from one of ritual to one of deep meaning.
Today the grave holds Him Who holds creation in His palm. A stone covers Him, Who covers the Heavens with virtue. Life sleeps, and Hades trembles; and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to Your dispensation, through which, when all things were accomplished, You presented to us an eternal Sabbath rest, granting us Your most Holy Resurrection from the dead.
As you pass under the Epitaphios, thank God for paving the way to Paradise for you. Also reflect on your Christian life and practice of it, as we practice our exit from this life, which we pray (and which our faith will determine) will lead to eternal life!