Life is a balance of celebration and toil. Birthdays, baptism, weddings, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter are occasions for us to gather and celebrate. Our lives are full of rhythms, winter is followed by summer, rest follows the workweek, pay follows work, school is followed by summer vacation. The food conscious know that each meal leads to the nest and so on. Rhythms are at the core of everyday life and at the center of Church’s life as well because they reveal the truth about life and death.
The truth about life and death is revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. In the culture of the Orthodox Church, feast days are preceded by a period of preparation. The manner of such celebrations goes back to the cultures of villages in Orthodox countries. Fasting followed by feasting creates a rhythm of preparation and fulfillment that is an image of our very lives. We live in order to prepare ourselves for the kingdom of heaven. In heaven, all toil and sorrow shall vanish, loses will be restored, injustices shall be made right and sin will be no more. Every year, during Holy Week and Pascha the Church invites us to enter into this rhythm of life and death in a very intense and special way by witnessing the passion of Christ.
Holy Week is a mix of sadness and joy. The Church cannot separate the resurrection of Christ from the Cross. A prayer reads, “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, let us praise His holy resurrection.” On the third Sunday of Lent we sing, “We venerate your Cross, O Master: and we glorify Your Holy Resurrection.” The hymns of Holy Friday are written in a tone of joyful-sorrow. The sorrow of the Virgin Mary witnessing the death of her son and the simultaneous exaltation that death is destroyed the moment Christ descends into it. The very tomb of Christ is a Life-Giving tomb decorated with flowers. During Holy Week, our personal crosses are allowed to be seen in light of His Cross and our sin are revealed as the source of his wounds. Holy Week is a garden from which the soul comprehends the way back to Life, a hope springs that turns our sorrow into joy. The Orthodox Church sees death in terms of a spiritual reality that is a physical one. Saint Peter wrote about Christ’s descent into Hell in terms of a spiritual awakening that takes place. “For Christ also once for all suffered for sins – the just One for the unjust ones – that He might bring us up to God, after He indeed was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in Whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison…[1 Peter 3:18-19].” Saint John of Damascus sees the same spiritual awakening having taken place through Christ’s death. “Just as the Sun of Righteousness [Mal. 4:2] rose for those upon the earth, so likewise did He bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and shadow of death [Is. 9:2; Mt. 4:16], in order that just as He brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, so did He bring that of deliverance to the captives and that of sight to the blind [Is. 61:1; Lk. 4:18]”. The preaching of Christ in Hades was directed towards the “dead” still alive but bound by death. For the living, a spiritual awakening happens in the same way, the risen Christ comes to us bound by sin and proclaims release. This marks the beginning of our journey to heaven. The seeds of this rebirth are planted in baptism, renewed through repentance and celebrated in worship. Hades then is something experienced while one is alive and is the result of our abandoning God, Who is Life.
Hades or hell is not so much a place as it is a state of being in darkness marked by God’s absence. A wise bishop once said, “God is never absent from us, rather we are the ones who abandon Him”. The descent of Christ into Hades is above all a theological statement, which proclaims there exists no “place” or “spiritual state” where God is absent. God is “present in all places and fills all things” – even death. Christ facing His own non-existence on the cross is the height of God pouring Himself out for us. On the cross, Christ experiences physical death while at the same time death became the first to see the truth about death – it was annihilated by Christ. Christ granted the righteous of the Old Covenant to be the first fruits of His resurrection. Saint Ambrose wrote: “Christ was present in the underworld and truly did exert His power in the lower world to set free in the soul which animated his own body, the souls of the dead, to loose the bands of death, to remit sins.” There does not exist a spiritual state that God’s love cannot penetrate. There are no “points of no return.” Such notion are created by us and inspired by the devil who seeks our destruction. Satan, along with those who blaspheme God, chose never to return. This means that partaking of eternal Life is the result of us allowing ourselves not to turn away from God.
The resurrection of Christ is the living reality that Christ is with us always. At the moment of the horrid tragic death of Christ, his disciples were in despair – Christ comes, appears to them and turns their sorrow into joy. As we take up the cross of struggling against sin – it is Christ who sends hope in the form of forgiveness. In the face of divisiveness, the blood of Christ offered in the sacred cup unites us. The resurrection of Christ is the power that allows us to believe that love is stronger that death. The resurrection of Christ turns our sorrows into joy. This is why the resurrection of Christ is the basis of all celebrations.