On Pascha, Orthodox Christians everywhere sing, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." We affirm boldly and with great joy our belief in Christ's real, historical resurrection from the dead, which is the basis for our faith and hope.
Reared on happy consumerism, one might feel satisfied to view holidays such as Easter (or Pascha) in isolation, a special day that is set apart to celebrate an event that has significance for us only insofar as it appeals to our sense of convention and propriety. Even if we are moderately religious, we cannot escape the cultural fascination with secular tropes, where the "special day" adheres in our consciousness as a celebration not of an historical event that has immediate significance even now, but which appeals to us mainly from the basis of what we experienced in our own childhoods, the memory of our own individual Easter celebrations or family rituals, whether idealized or not. Even those who despise "organized religion" and treat it with contempt do not seem to mind an only somewhat disorganized religious ritualism that is signified by bunnies and eggs, dressing up for a religious service on hopefully a beautiful spring day, hidden eggs colored a variety of shades of blue and pink and yellow and red, often dyed the night before by excited children, and baskets filled with chocolate and other goodies.
In the context of the worship of the Church among those believers who participate in the fasts and feasts of the Church calendar year, the celebration of Pascha is not just one special day of revelry to commemorate a specific religious event, but it resides within the context of a much longer story, one that continues throughout the entire year, but narrows in intensity during Lent. People who pop into services once a year to celebrate Easter in the same spirit as one might go to a movie or stand on the side of the road to watch a parade may find themselves made happy by the celebration, which is a good thing in itself; but they miss so much of the substance of it that it might be compared to reading the CliffsNotes or mistaking the preview for the movie.
But that also is a bad comparison -- the difference might actually be between watching the preview and playing a role in the film as an actor, familiar with the subject, filled with the raw experience of the life of Jesus Christ, who comes not in order to entertain us, nor to judge us, nor to teach a particular branch of science or an ethical system. But he comes, we find in the icon of the Nativity, peculiarly wrapped in what appears to be graveclothes, his cradle oddly resembling a coffin, the cave in which the baby lies not just a random hole in the earth, but made by his presence into the entrance to the very heart of the earth. He comes to die, and those who follow him do not merely watch, but die with him, baptized into his death in a manner that is above all rationality.
So during Holy Week we follow the Passion, not to meditate on the violence done to Jesus nor to feel sorry for him, but to mourn our own weaknesses and sins. We do not engage in the process of reflection on our own behavior in order to try to feel pathologically guilty or to punish ourselves, but in order to turn away from the behaviors which ruin us and other people, so that we might progress to mutual healing and communion. During Lent and Holy Week we seek forgiveness from every creature for the nasty things, or perhaps just the unkind things, we have done in our lives. We seek to humble ourselves with Christ as if we too might be humbled to the point of death, in Him, not as a mere memory, but as a mystery of the unity and communion in Christ that not only breaks the barriers between the physical and immaterial worlds, but transcends space and time as well.
We do not attend for a mere memorial or to play with dead symbols in meaningless ceremonies, but we identify with Christ in his Passion, and we identify with those who killed him for whom he prays when he is held aloft on the cross that they would be forgiven. If Christ does not rise from death, thereby trampling down death by death, then we remain dead, victims of death and undone by the tragedy of death. If his resurrection is merely a myth to imbue our lives with meaning, the meaning is spoiled by its lack of veracity and it becomes as insubstantial as stories of the Easter Bunny. St. Paul writes, "...if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile." But if it is a myth that is also true, both historically and subjectively, that Jesus died and was resurrected so that when we die in Him we may also be raised with Him, then it has the power and potential to transform all death, all separation, all tragedy, all failure and all suffering into a path that leads to resurrection, life, justice, beauty and communion with God.
As the late theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes:
All Christianity, therefore, is the experience of faith repeated again and again as if for the first time, through its incarnation in rites, words, music, and colors. To the unbeliever, it may indeed seem like a mirage; he hears only words, he sees only incomprehensible ceremonies, and he understands them only outwardly. But for believers, all of this radiates from within, and not as proof of his faith, but as its result, as its life in the world, in the soul, in history. Therefore the darkness and sadness of Holy Friday is for us something real, alive, contemporary; we can cry at the cross and experience everything that took place in that triumph of evil, treachery, cowardice, and betrayal; we can contemplate the life-bearing tomb on Holy Saturday with excitement and hope. And therefore, every year we can celebrate Easter, Pascha, the Resurrection. For Easter is not the remembrance of an event in the past. It is the real encounter in happiness and joy, with him whom our hearts long ago knew and encountered as the life and light of all light. Easter night testifies that Christ is alive and with us, and that we are alive with him. The entire celebration is an invitation to look at the world and life, and to behold the dawning of the mystical day of the Kingdom of light. "Today the scent of Spring begins," sings the church, "and the new creation exults..." It exults in faith, in love and in hope.
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