Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen! Monday of the Second Week of Pascha: Through the Cross, Joy! (Part I)
THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT antinomies or paradoxes of Christian faith are the incarnation of the Son of God and His resurrection from the dead. Both of these find their fulfillment in the celebration of Easter, known in Orthodox tradition as Holy Pascha: The Passover of our Lord from death to life.
A resurrectional hymn sung at each eucharistic celebration reminds us that every such celebration commemorates and actualizes for us Christ’s victory over death. The theme of that hymn is the paradoxical affirmation, “Through the Cross, joy has come into all the world!”
This affirmation speaks simply and eloquently to the overriding concern of our generation: anxiety in the face of death. Our entire culture, it seems, from the distractions of creature comforts to the urge to clone ourselves, has been shaped—deformed—by the single-minded desire to deny, if not escape, the reality of death. For most people, death means the ultimate annihilation of their every achievement, their carefully cultivated self-image, their very existence. A voice whispers in their ear, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Yet the promise of Pascha, and its miracle, is the promise of life beyond death. Through the Cross of Christ, by virtue of His death and resurrection, our life has become a spiritual pilgrimage that leads us beyond the crisis of physical death to life without end. This pilgrimage is charted for us by the stages of Great Lent, with its ascetical practices and intensified prayer. Here, in this life, we engage in spiritual warfare so that one day we might enjoy everlasting peace in the kingdom of God. Here we dwell in exile, but with full knowledge that we are created and invited to partake forever of God’s own divine life.
The true message of Pascha is most eloquently expressed in the icon of the Descent of Christ into Hell, or Sheol, the abode of the departed. In Western traditions, the Resurrection of our Lord is depicted as a victorious rising from the tomb. In Orthodoxy, the Resurrection is proclaimed by the image of the glorified Christ descending into the abyss. “In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul as God. …”
Without surrendering His divine nature, the eternal Son of God assumes all the conditions of human existence. In an act of total self-abnegation, in perfect obedience to the will of the Father, He accepts the “kenotic,” or self-emptying, movement that leads from the Virgin’s womb to the humiliating agony of the Cross. Yet even on the cross His descent is not complete. The tormented cry, “My God, my God, why . . .?” is not the final word, nor is the surrender of His spirit the final act of self-emptying. He must still descend into the far reaches of the Abyss, the realm of death, in order there to break the bonds of death. He, the Second Adam and perfect Man, must reach out to touch, renew, and raise into His glory the First Adam, humankind fallen from life, who dwells in the land of shadows.
~Father John Breck, God with Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith