Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.
The joy of Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, is a marvelous wonder. Because it is a Spring Feast (dated with the Spring equinox, as light overtakes darkness on the Earth, Easter is associated with new life, green grass, fresh flowers, warm days—the end, the death one could say, of winter. In mind—and soon in photos, Snapchats, and Facebook posts—is the innocence of little children dressed in their Easter dresses and tiny seersucker outfits hunting eggs. We recall that first Easter egg, when St. Mary Magdalene, on of the Myrrh-bearing women who were first to bear witness to Jesus’ Resurrection. She had brought an egg to the Emperor to proclaim the Resurrection. And his reply, according to the tradition, was that a man could no more rise from the dead than her egg could turn red. It promptly did.
These are the external signs and traditions of Easter—Paschal—joy. But what does it actually mean that Jesus arose from the dead? What is the importance of the Crucifixion, the Descent to Hades, and the Empty tomb? Is it simple enough to summarize in a short essay? In a few sentences, please allow me to try.
Understanding the Meaning of Pascha
Until the advent of Jesus Christ, God-made-man—every human person who was born—died, just as we do today. Only until Jesus lived and died his voluntary death, every dead person was buried or otherwise disposed of, and dwelt in the land of the dead. Some call it Hades. One’s body became simply food for worms, and one’s soul went to some sort of holding tank.
Being sinless, it was impossible for Christ to die of “natural causes”. Sin is the cause of death, and he had none.
When Jesus died on Holy Friday, upon the Cross, he was on a direct mission: to get to that holding tank. He offered himself to be put to death. Death had to be inflicted upon him. That is to say, he was killed. He didn’t “just die”. Taken down from the Cross that Friday afternoon, he was put into a virgin tomb (how amazing—how beautiful! Born from a virgin’s womb, buried in a virgin tomb!). Many people skip over Holy Saturday, and go straight to the Resurrection. But Holy Saturday is the link that makes it all make sense! What did Jesus “do” on that Saturday?
In the Orthodox Christian Tradition we sing:
The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day, when he said:
God blessed the seventh day.
This is the blessed Sabbath.
This is the day of rest
On which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works.
He kept the Sabbath in the flesh,
Through the dispensation of death.
But on this day, he returned again
Through the resurrection.
He has granted us eternal life,
For He alone is good, the Lover of man.
Jesus “kept the Sabbath” by resting from his salvific work. He rested bodily in the tomb. And he descended to the dead, where he unchained those held captive by death (everyone who had died prior to him), and destroyed the gates of Hades. Death no longer, as a result, has a permanent hold on a single human being.
No one is simple “dead and gone”. No one is simply “food for worms.”
The Power of the Truth and the Life
The Resurrection shows that death had and has no power over the Author of Life: Jesus Christ. And now that he has destroyed the power of death, there is an amazing result to every single human person on the earth: resurrection.
Not a single person who is born and dies will be dead permanently. The message of the Gospel is that every human being will be raised from the dead. Everyone. No one will be left in the grave.
And that is the miracle of Jesus’ Crucifixion, Burial, and Resurrection. No one has to “follow Jesus” to be raised from the dead. It is a gift to every human being—good, bad, man, woman, stranger, friend, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Atheist. Everyone will be raised from the dead.
The question that remains, and is left into the hands—or to the lips and to the hearts and actions—of us all is: raised “to what”? According to the Gospel of St. John: resurrection of Judgment or resurrection to Eternal Life? Jesus says directly, through St. John: those who have done good will be raised to the resurrection of Life, and those who have done evil will be raised to the Resurrection of Judgment (the Greek does not say, ‘damnation’, as is wrongly translated in the King James).
Everyone’s judgment is dependent on one’s works. (Sorry, Reformation friends, it is a fact you have to face!) The doing of good is a union with Jesus Christ, the very essence of Goodness. And the doing of evil is a union with the Devil, the Prince of this World, whose influence is a bastardization of Good–good turned on itself.
So, the meaning of the Resurrection is this: You and I shall be raised from the Dead! We will both stand naked before the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and have to give an account for every deed done. For every careless word spoken.
Are we grateful that death has been overcome? Do we show it by our actions, by a change of life—by a metanoia—a repentance—a change of direction and of thinking?
Grateful for this resurrection, shall we not accuse ourselves now (repent)? Or shall we risk being accused on that last day, with no resort?
Do you and I wish to “see our loved ones again?” This bit of popular theology has to be nuanced. Jesus himself told us, “not all who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven”. Simply “calling on the name of the Lord” is insufficient. Those ‘saved’ are saved by their lives marked by love of God and love of neighbor, by tangible activities of all the senses, in short, again to quote the Lord, “those who do the will of [the] Father in heaven, by a life of mercy, kindness, generosity, long-suffering, gratitude, etc., in the Name of Jesus—who is the Resurrection and the Life.
Will I see Aunt Helen in Heaven? Well, that is not automatic for either or both of us. Did Aunt Helen do the will of the Father? Do I? Is either of us Jesus, able to say and judge rightly? Is it not better biblically to hope humbly than to declare daringly? These may be startling questions, but Christians must apply themselves to the Apostolic Preaching and Teaching to make any declaration about anything or anyone. This is why, in the traditional Christian funeral, we pray for the forgiveness of the sins of the departed and why we trust in the mercy and long-suffering of God!
The point is that human beings, who were the pinnacle of God’s creation, missed the mark and became selfish and ungrateful. Jesus, in his Crucifixion, Burial, Descent to the Dead, and Resurrection, gives us a new opportunity for humility and gratitude. But it is not generic humility and gratitude. Rather it is humility in imitation of the Humble King of Glory and gratitude to the same who has blazed for all a path of Resurrection and life, of which the Baptized life is the way and the means.
With the Sacred Triduum—the Holy Three Days—the Crucifixion and Death, the Burial and Descent to Hades, and the Third-day Resurrection—the invitation is given to every one of us, as it was given by the Lord through Moses: I set before you today blessings and curses, life and death. Choose life, and live! Through the Cross, joy has come into all the world. Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs, bestowing life!
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