Through the Cross, Joy!
By Father John Breck
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
coming 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 our every achievement, our carefully cultivated
self-image, our very existence. A voice whispers in the ear of every one
of us, "You are dust and to dust you shall return."
The Resurrection is proclaimed by the image of
the glorified Christ descending into the abyss.
Yet the promise of Easter—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 called and invited to partake of the very Life of God.
The true message of Easter 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
the fullness of human existence. In an act of total abandon, total 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.
The hand that reaches out to grasp the hands of
Adam and Eve reaches out to embrace their descendants as well ...
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.
This descent, this final and ultimate penetration into the realm of the
dead, is accomplished once and for all. It frees patriarch, prophet and
king. But at the same time it frees us ourselves, setting us free from
the consequences of death. The hand that reaches out to grasp the hands
of Adam and Eve reaches out to embrace their descendants as well: every
Adam who responds to His gesture with longing and with faith.
We, like Adam of the paschal icon, are also bound, held captive by the
powers of sin, death and corruption. We, too, have died and have cast
ourselves into the farthest reaches of the abyss, far from the presence
of the Giver of Life. Yet He comes to us as to lost sheep, descending
in His compassionate love to seek us out in the darkness and to raise
us up with Himself. Like the hound of heaven, He pursues us down the byways.
If we make our bed in hell (Ps 138/139), He is there, ever present, ever
reaching out to lift us with Himself into the glory of resurrected life.
For through the Cross of Christ, death is no more,
neither mourning nor sorrow, neither anguish nor pain.
As the Scriptures so clearly attest, however, this life, this participation
in the Resurrection of our Lord is not merely a future hope. It is, prophetically
yet in truth, a present reality. Together with all of creation we sigh
with longing, awaiting the revelation of the children of God. Here indeed,
St Paul reminds us, we groan and long to put on our heavenly dwelling.
Our true home, the fulfillment of our created existence, is indeed in
the heavens, beyond the pale of physical death. The true meaning of our
life is in fact to be found in the transformation of this body of flesh
into a body of spirit, through the full and perfect restoration within
us of the image of God.
Yet this transformation begins in the here and now, in the present moment
of our earthly life. For the victory of Christ is a victory over time,
just as it is over sin and death. Dwelling within this earthly tent, struggling
with the powers of darkness in the often tragic events of daily life,
we can nevertheless walk even now in the eternal light of His glory. Reaching
out to Him, even in lonely anguish, we find that He truly does wipe away
every tear. Even in the face of death—our own or that of a loved
one—we live in the fullness of hope. For through the Cross of Christ,
death is no more, neither mourning nor sorrow, neither anguish nor pain.
For behold, the prophet declares in the name of us all, the former things
have passed away; all has been made anew.
Those who make the lenten pilgrimage, through the dark of night and on
to the radiant brightness of the paschal dawn, pass by the Way of the
Cross towards the fullness of resurrected life. To them, fear before the
future—anxiety in the face of death—is transfigured into joy.
For they know what each of us in the depths of our soul longs to know:
that by enduring the Cross for us, Christ has indeed destroyed death by
2001 Father John Breck
More from CBN.com's special Easter
The Very Rev. John Breck was Professor of New Testament
and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary from 1984-1996. He is presently
Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological
Institute, Paris, France. With his wife, Lyn, he directs the St. Silouan
Retreat near Charleston, SC. His published works include The Sacred
Gift of Life, The Power of the Word, and The Shape of Biblical
Language. (St Vladimir’s Press)
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