In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Every Sunday throughout the year, century after century, the Orthodox Church proclaims the Resurrection of Christ. Each Sunday we relive once again our joy that Christ is risen. And that joy is so deep, so profound, that it bears witness of itself: we rejoice not only because the Lord is risen, but because his Resurrection is for us the beginning of new, renewed life. In the Sermon of John Chrysostom which is read on the night of Christ’s Resurrection each year, it is said that ‘Christ is risen, and there is none dead in the tomb…’ And we ourselves continue to pass on this message from one century to the next. Yet is it true? Do we not see that death continues to reap its harvest around us? Are there not graves beside Christian churches as well? How can we say that ‘there is none dead in the tomb’, that Christ has conquered death by death?
We can say this because death has two completely different meanings, and the tombs are indeed empty. Until the coming of Christ, every human being, when he died — whether he was righteous or not — was deprived of the joy of meeting God. According to the Old Testament story of the primal sin of our ancestors, Adam and Eve, the whole human race was deprived of the radiance, the joy, the glory of God. Everyone who died thereafter entered into an abyss of horror, of separation from God and, as a result, of separation from those closest to him. And his death was twofold: not just an earthly death when the soul, separated from the body, flies upward towards God and worships at the throne of the Lord, who consoles it for its earthly sorrows. There was another death as well, a second separation. While someone lived on this earth, he could, in one way or another, with just the tip of his soul, touch at least the border of the Lord’s garment. But after death, any separation became final, definitive, dreadful. And age after age people waited for the Saviour, for the one who would unite heaven and earth, God and creation. But until the Lord came, our Saviour Jesus Christ, that separation remained dark and terrible.
And then the Lord came and died on the Cross the death of every man, having first shared in the dreadful loneliness and torment that precedes death. Remember the garden of Gethsemene: ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…’ He shared in the horror of that separation when he cried out to God from the Cross: ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ And he descended into hell… into hell!
And hell opened wide with joy in the hope that now the enemy whom it had found invincible on earth had been overcome and taken prisoner. Hell opened up, as John Chrysostom says, to take in flesh — and opened itself to God. Hell opened to imprison the incarnate Son of God become man — and before him stood, into him entered the Living God who fills all things, entering hell and destroying it for ever. Hell was no longer that former terrible hell of separation, because in it was the living God.
The Prophet David in his mysterious vision said: ‘Whither shall I go then from thy presence? If I go up into heaven, thou art there: If I go down to hell, thou art there also’. For us this seems simple, because for us that eternal, hopeless hell of the absence of God no longer exists. But for the man of the Old Testament this was a puzzling statement: how can God be where God is not? How can he be in the place of separation from God? But David foresaw — and prophetically foretold — the coming of the Lord and the end of that final separation. Today death has become for us something else. Now it is a falling asleep. In the body we fall asleep to the anxieties of the earth, and peace descends upon our flesh. Our body now lies there like an icon of Christ lying in the grave on that mysterious, blessed Saturday when the Lord ceased from his works, from the work of saving mankind, from the labour of suffering, from the Cross, from crucifixion. Everyone who dies now, falls asleep in Christ, he falls asleep until the day his body rises at the last trumpet, on the day of the resurrection of the dead. ‘Blessed are they who die in the Lord’, as John the Theologian says in the Apocalypse.
This is why for the Christian, death is not something terrible. This is why someone who meant a great deal to me was able to say to me: ‘Wait for your death as a young man waits for his bride’. With the same kind of trembling, with the same rejoicing of soul we can say to death: ‘Come, open for me the doors of eternal life, so that my rebellious flesh may find peace, and my soul may soar up to the eternal dwelling place of God’. This is why we can say truly and rightfully proclaim that ‘there is not one dead in the tomb’. For the grave has ceased to be a prison, a place of final and terrible captivity. It has become a place where the body awaits resurrection while the soul grows, to the extent it can, into eternal life.
Yet death, the separation of death, is none the less still present on earth to a certain extent. It has been defeated even in its own kingdom, yet man himself continues, by cutting off others from the mystery of love, to prolong that separation on earth. Just look at our human society. There is no need to look far: just look at your family, at those closest to you, at your friends, your parish, at the Church. Can we really say that we are so linked together by love that death, that separation, that separation from God, that separation from one another doesn’t exist on earth? Sadly, God has conquered death everywhere, but in the heart of man it must be conquered by man himself.
Death and love are inseparable from one another. And it is because of this that it is such a fearsome thing to love. To love just a little, to love irresponsibly, to love in such a way that a relationship is begun and then allowed to end when it becomes painful or difficult or dangerous — we can all do this. But to love as the Lord loved — this we seem unable to do. The Apostle Paul says to us: ‘Accept one another, love one another as the Lord loved you…’ But do we realize how the Lord loved us? He loved us so much that he did not want to be a stranger to us and became one of us, one among many others — and not just temporarily, but for eternity, for ever — with all the pain, with all the horror of that union.
The glory of God was extinguished when the Word became Flesh. No one knew him. His victory appeared to be defeat. He became the one whom the Holy Scriptures declared would be ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief ‘. He became one with us forever. Can we become one with each other in this way? Can we so love one another that we can say: ‘For ever? In sorrow and in joy, in horror and in exultation, whatever happens, I will stand by you for ever’? If this were the case, how marvellous our world would be, how marvellous our Church would be, what parishes we would have, what families, what friends! But our meetings are like two ships meeting on the sea: they meet and pass on. We haven’t enough depth, not enough faithfulness, not enough readiness to do what Christ did: to descend into hell, into the hell of suffering of someone whom we love, into the hell of his temptations, into the hell of his pain, into the hell of his destruction. Instead, we stand on the shore and call out: ‘Save yourself, swim over here to me — I will reach out my hand to you!’ But we ourselves do not enter that hell, and so it is terrible for us to talk about love, it is so difficult to love — because we should love only as the Lord has loved us. Death and love are bound up together because to love means to forget oneself until one doesn’t exist, not to remember oneself. The other becomes so dear to one that to think about oneself gets in the way. We need to say to ourselves what Christ said to Peter when he stood in front of him on the way to Golgotha: ‘Get behind me, Satan; you are thinking about earthly things, and not about heaven’. Can we forget about ourselves to that extent, can we love like that, can we die like that?
At the same time, so long as we cannot do this, we are touching only the border of the Lord’s garment, we are joined only to the outer edge of the light, the radiant light and brilliance of the Resurrection of Christ. To live the Resurrection is possible only for someone who has passed through death and is on the other side of death, not the death of this world, not material, bodily death, but the death which is also called love, when a person forgets about himself and loves so much that he lays down his life for his friend. Moses is called a ‘friend of God’ in the Scriptures, and what does he say? ‘Lord, if you do not forgive your people their sins, then strike out my name from the book of life. I do not wish to live, if others go to their death’. The Apostle Paul says that he would prefer, if possible, to be separated from Christ, rather than see the destruction of the people of Israel. These are nonsensical words — nonsensical in the sense that when a man experiences such love, he is already on the other side of death. But humanly speaking that is all we are able to say: ‘Yes, it is better that I should perish, than that I should be separated from anyone’. This is the standard shown us by the Cross — and by the Resurrection, for one is inseparable from the other. And so, from Sunday to Sunday, when you hear the news that Christ has risen, remember that we are all called to be, on this earth, people risen from the dead in love. But for this to take place, we must so love each other as to pass through the gates of death, to descend through the Cross into hell, to share through Love in the suffering of the other, to forget ourselves — and then suddenly discover that I am alive, alive with the life of Christ! Amen.