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Through the Cross, Joy!

By Father John Breck
Guest Writer

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 death.

2001 Father John Breck

More from's special Easter page

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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