st nicholas orthodox church
126 morris street southbridge, ma 01550
THE RANSOM FROM SORROW
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
A Pascha of delight, Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha, an all-
What is the deepest message of Christ’s resurrection? Is it the end of death, sin, and alienation? Of, course! But the joy of the resurrection is that it brings an end to sorrow. It frees us from the crushing sorrow of death, sin, and alienation.
Death—the death of those whom we love and the anticipation of our own death—is a heartbreaking loss, a terror, the threat of annihilation. Indeed, death is the ultimate alienation and the knowledge of death is the ultimate source of sin (at least since the first sin was committed—the sin that lead to death). This knowledge is engrained into our very being. It expresses itself even in infants in the cry for food, the demand for attention, the requirement for care. Looked at this way, the knowledge and fear of death is a universal—extending even beyond human beings into the animal world.
Most of us spend our entire life avoiding the thought of death. When it happens to others we are speedy in making it go away. The body is shipped off to a funeral home where it is made to look as much like it is alive is possible, or it is cremated, or locked in a casket so that no one can see it (increasingly, at least among the non-
The cruelty of our modern approach is that it artificially suppresses the natural sorrow and grief we feel in the face of what appears to be annihilation. Our modern approach is unnatural and perverse; it attempts to convince us of the lie that we can ever get beyond the catastrophic impact that death has on all of life.
Now that sounds like a terribly morbid statement. In fact, it is the modern attitude toward death or, rather, our denial of death that is morbid and unnatural because it deprives us of hope. In attempting to limit and ultimately deny sorrow we deprive ourselves of joy. Against common sense and practical experience we are asked to treat death as natural, normal, and perhaps even good—and in doing so we repudiate the saving work of Christ and refute His resurrection!
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up-
Our modern attitude toward death ultimately rejects the possibility of resurrection. By attempting to make peace with death, or more aptly, by trying to push it aside and forget it, we have forsaken the resurrection. By denying our sorrow we have forfeited out joy!
The message of the resurrection is that, yes, death matters. It really is a terrible obstacle, the source of sorrow, the birth-
Christ did not make peace with death. He overcame it. He humiliated it. He destroyed it. The incomparable St. John Chrysostom put it this way in his sermon on the Resurrection.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, "Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions." It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!"O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ does not make peace with death; He does not surrender to it, He annihilates it! Annihilation is annihilated, alienation is alienated, sin is erased, and sorrow is replaced by joy. At last we are liberated from the need to either tremble in the presence of death or to deny it because Christ has redeemed us from it.
This is the very heart of the gospel—the good news of salvation—that we have been set free both to mourn and to rejoice. Or, better yet, we have been freed to mourn in the knowledge and hope of joy. This is a great paradox, that the very source of our sorrow should be turned into joy.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Our Paschal proclamation declares that the means of sorrow has become the means by which sorrow has been undone. Death is defeated by death and the life that emerges from it can never die again. This is the beginning and end of the Orthodox Christian faith, our hope and our joy. And it gives us good reason not to surrender to the great paradox of modern life wherein death is both embraced and denied. (We embrace death as the solution to life’s problems through abortion, ‘euthanasia’, suicide, and the death penalty. We deny it when we sweep it away in the sanitized confines of our funeral homes, our desire for closed casket funerals, and our insistence that mourning be kept to a minimum and that it be very, very private).
In the Resurrection of Christ, we both acknowledge the reality and the unreality of death. It is real because until Christ comes again at the end of the ages, we must die. It is unreal because in Him death has been defeated. His resurrection is the promise of what is to come. Thus, we weep for our loved ones when they die and we dread the day of our own death and we rejoice because we know that death no longer has the last word.
The joy of Pascha has nothing to do with the cycle of life and death; the emergence of spring from winter. It is has to do with the end of death; its complete destruction. Once we understand this we can be ‘real’. We can shed real tears and experience real joy. We can have a truly sane (healthy) attitude toward death, free from both morbidity and from the false attempt to make friends with it.
Why? Because we have been set free from its power. We have been ransomed from its sorrow. Its bitterness has been made sweet for us and its fearsomeness has been transformed into hope.
This is a message worth proclaiming. In the end, it is the most important message of all.
WITH US IN ALL THINGS—UNTIL THE END OF TIME
You went down to the deepest parts of the earth, and you shattered the everlasting bars of those that those that were fettered, O Christ. And on the third day, like Jonah from the whale, you arose from the tomb. (Paschal Canon, Ode 7)
O divine! O beloved! O sweetest voice! You have truly promised that you will be with us unto the end of time, O Christ. And we the faithful rejoice, having this as an anchor of hope. (Paschal Canon Ode 9)
One of the great objections that atheists have against belief in God has to do with suffering in the world. “How”, they ask, “can you believe in a loving God when you can so plainly see the suffering and misery in the world? Look at the terrible results of natural disasters, or, the horror brought on by war, what kind of good God would permit that?” Even believers are occasionally tempted to ask the same questions—especially when suffering and loss comes home to us.
In the events of Holy Week Christian we have been reminded that God has definitively answered the accusations of the unbelievers—and believers caught up in tragedy—that He is indifferent to our sufferings, or, worse still, the cause of them.
Where is God in the midst of suffering? The answer is, He is with us in it. The Passion of Christ is THE answer to God’s place in the agony of this world—He has taken it on Himself completely and unreservedly in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God suffered in the flesh. He who became one of us took the very worst we had to offer and forgave us. More than that, He not only endured the humiliation and agony of the cross in the singularity of His own Person, He experienced the humiliation and agony of every single being that has ever suffered—from the beginning of creation until the end, until the Day He returns to end every grief and dry every tear forever.
The message of God’s co-
For the believer the last word is that no matter what happens to us, we have the absolute certainty that we are not abandoned, that our grief is not meaningless, that no matter where we go—even “into the depths of the earth” in death—we are not alone. He has not only been there, He IS there.
“In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit, You have filled all things, Yourself uncircumscribed”.
The priest prays these words as he censes the altar just before the Liturgy. The prayer is a reminder that there is no place in the universe where God is not present, there is no place or situation where He is not with us. The conviction that we are never alone has made it possible for the Church and individual Christian believers to survive the most brutal persecutions. Our enemies could lock us away in dungeons and concentration camps, or drag us before the executioners, and yet they could not prevail against those who know to the core of their being that they have not been and will never be abandoned by Christ.
Whether or not we have to face the enmity of a hostile state, everyone of us must face the heartbreak of losing loved ones and the knowledge of our own mortality. Furthermore, at some point in nearly every person’s life there are moments of humiliation, loss of direction, and doubt. The knowledge that God is with us—really and truly with us—in those times is the difference between despair and hope, meaninglessness and meaningfulness. If in those times we have Christ, then we have everything. Our enemies may deride our faith as childish, as a desperate attempt to grab at straws when all hope has failed. But our experience as Christians teaches us that whether we live or die, whether we sink or swim, we are in the same hands, we have the same constant hope.
Christ’s victory over death is not only a victory over the physical reality of death; it is a victory over the million small deaths that almost every human being experiences in the course of ‘life’ in this world. The Orthodox believer knows that he or she lives in a world that is passing away. We know that no matter how good life appears to be at any given moment on this side of the Resurrection, it is impermanent and will always come up against the tragedy of loss, suffering, and death—our own and that of all those others whose cries rise up to heaven, asking “Why?”
In the end, we don’t really want to know “why”; we want to be assured that our existence has a meaning and purpose greater than to become food for the worms. We want to know that we are not alone. We want to know that our love is not lost and that our lives are not for nothing. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ is God’s definitive response to the question, “What is the meaning of life”. That meaning is nothing more or less than to discover wherever we are and wherever we go—even to the “very deepest parts of the earth”—He has gone there before us and will meet us there. Beyond the sorrow is the joy, beyond the darkness there is light, beyond the corruption of our flesh is the incorruptible and unquenchable life of the Resurrection. In the end, even this weak body we now wear will be raised and made beautiful and immortal, and, as the prophet Job said, “in my flesh shall I see God”. In that day we will embrace once again all our loved ones gone before us and our eyes shall Him as He is.
In this great feast of the Resurrection, the “sweetest voice” of the promised One resounds clearly in our hearts—wherever we are and in whatever condition we find ourselves. We are not alone, we have not been abandoned, our lives are not meaningless. In the risen Christ we have that anchor, that hope, that joy, that no one and nothing can ever take away.
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!
THE DESCENT INTO HADES
Life, how can you perish,
or how dwell in a tomb?
Yet the royal hall of Death you now bring to nought,
and from Hades’ realm you raise the dead again.
(First Stasis—Lamentations Service)
The icon most Orthodox identify with the Resurrection of Christ is actually an image of His descent into Hades—the place of the dead. Unlike the Western tradition, Orthodox iconography does not generally portray Christ emerging from the tomb. There is a profound theological reason for this; we are being reminded that, though truly dead in the flesh and laid in a tomb, the Lord continued to actively carry out His saving mission.
The key here is activity—something not normally associated with death! In Christ, death itself is upended and reversed—this is precisely what is meant when we sing,
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”. Death is trampled down—destroyed—by means of death. The immensity of this paradox can only be expressed poetically.
Though a corpse we see you,
yet alive as our God
you gave life again to mortals who once were slain,
put to death the one who brought me to my death.
(First Stasis—Lamentations Service)
Death is more than reversed—it is enslaved to serve the Lord of Life; it is voided and, in the deepest sense, deprived of its power over us and forced to serve the Lord’s purpose of bringing us to everlasting life.
Life itself, Christ Savior,
having tasted of death,
freed all mortal kind from death, liberated us,
and the gift of life he now bestows on all.
(First Stasis—Lamentations Service)
The Church’s poetic hymns of Holy Week and Pascha provide us with verbal icons of a reality that is actual more real than the one we experience in this life—again the great and awesome paradox. Somehow, the ‘dead’ are made more alive than the living! C.S. Lewis expressed this same paradox in his little gem of book, The Great Divorce, in which the reality of heaven—the coming Kingdom—is so solid that it makes everything else seem ghostly. Again, our understanding is turned inside out. We are accustomed to thinking of the world of the dead as being “ghostly” while our world is solid and real. And, in fact, the Hebrew understanding of Hades, or, Sheol, was of a gray and dismal place where the departed led a gloomy, half sleeping existence. With the death of Christ and His descent into Hell-
It is right indeed
we should magnify the one who grants life,
you, that stretched your hands wide upon the Cross,
broke and smashed the might and power of the foe.
(Second Stasis—Lamentations Service)
The victory of the dead Lord of Life over the one who lorded it over the dead becomes the supreme paradox—and the absolute center of the Orthodox Christian faith. The whole point of the incarnation of Christ is made clear in this singular event; it is not about paying a debt, it is about destroying an enemy. Christianity in the west went astray with its overemphasis on a misunderstood understanding of “atonement”. In the western reading of the death of Christ the focus was on paying the Father a ransom for the offense of human sin. St. Gregory Nazianzus rejected this, saying that it would be unjust.
Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice…. If to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, on what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honor of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?
The early Fathers of the Church (many of them western) saw Christ’s descent into Hades as a victorious campaign against death and the devil; there was a clear and powerful military imagery—hell suffers a humiliating defeat, death literally being trampled underfoot by the one who was dead, yet living still (see Revelation 2:8).
Christ’s suffering and death was entirely pointed at destroying the power of suffering and death—the sense of meaninglessness and emptiness that marked the predominant understanding of death in the ancient world, pagan and Jewish. For those who accepted Him, for those who were baptized and made members of His Body (the Church), physical death became a momentary and passing phenomenon, not a permanent state. It is hard to convey just how radical a change in understanding this was for the people of the early Christian centuries.
with your own hand fashioned us, O Savior,
now, O Sun, you set underneath the earth,
raising companies of mortals from the fall.
(Second Stasis—Lamentations Service)
The other great theme of the descent into Hades is God’s solidarity with us in death. Though it is the consequence of the great cosmic disaster of original sin—the calamity that has warped and perverted the whole universe with its effects—God has not left us to suffer alone. He is with us in it.
‘The depth of your compassion,
I glorify my dear Son,
which makes you suffer these things.’
(Third Stasis—Lamentations Service)
As the Communion Prayer of St. Basil states, “being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory”. He becomes one of us—taking on all that we are, except for sin, and bearing it from the moment of conception to and through death. He became our ransom, not to the Father or to the Devil, but to the power of death; it was a ransom that killed the perpetrator. We were ransomed from death by the death of Christ and death died as a result (hence, “trampling down death by death”). The mind bends to comprehend this and can’t—only the language of poetry and the imagery of icons can convey something beyond and above rational categories.
Lord, my God, I will sing a song for your departure, a funeral hymn for you who by your burial opened up for me the entrances to life, and by your death put Death and Hell to death.
All things above the world and all below the earth quaked with fear at your death, as they saw you on the throne above and below in a tomb; for beyond understanding you appeared as a one dead, you the source of life.
That you might fill all things with your glory, you went down into the lowest parts of the earth; for my substance, which is in Adam was not hidden from you, and by being buried you make me, who had been corrupted, new, O Lover of humankind.
When Christ descends into Hades He turns our corruption into Life! The means of our destruction has become the means of our healing, renewal, and resurrection. In our icons of the Resurrection we portray Christ’s descent into Hades as the Lord and Liberator of the human race from its last and greatest enemy (see I Corinthians 15:26).
The Lord descended into Hades, in the last analysis, to show us that His love is so deep and abiding that nothing can ever separate us from Him—except our own desire. Hell itself is not so deep, death is not so strong, and Satan is not so powerful as to deprive us of the Love of Him who went to the furthest extreme to save us.
The Last Judgment
Woe, to you, O my darkened soul!
Your life is stained by depravity and laziness;
your folly makes you shun all thought of death.
How complacent you remain!
How can you flee the awesome thought of Judgment Day?
When will you change your way of life?
On that day your sins will rise against you.
What will your answer be then?
Your acts will condemn you; your deeds will expose you.
The time is at hand, O my soul.
Turn to the good and loving Savior!
Beg Him to forgive your malice and weakness, as you cry in faith:
“I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against You,
but I know Your love for all mankind.
O good Shepherd, call me to enjoy Your lasting presence on Your right hand!”
(Apostikha, sung at Great Vespers for Sunday of the Last Judgment)
Who can read these words and not tremble as they confront us with the reality of the Last Judgment—the final judgment that each and every human being must face at the end of his or her days?
It is all too common in our time to assume that God will accept us “just the way we are” and that heaven is value free. Yet, there is nothing in the gospels, nothing in the Church Tradition, nothing anywhere in Scripture that would give us any reason to think that way. We are told, emphatically, time and time again that we will be judged. In the Orthodox funeral service we hear of the “Judge who shows no partiality” and “knows no favorites”:
I am on my way to the Judge, with whom there is no respect of persons; for slave and master stand alike before him, king and soldier, rich and poor, with the same rank; for each will be glorified or shamed in accordance with their own deeds.
(Funeral Service, Archimandrite Ephrem’s translation)
In times past our own people—even those who lived badly—believed in the reality of the final judgment of our bodies and souls. They did not presume that everyone got an automatic pass into the Kingdom. And, when we think about it, their reasoning makes sense and is deeply Scriptural. They understood that darkness and evil could not be mixed with the Pure Light and Perfect Goodness of God’s Kingdom any more than one could mix water from a sewer with the water one drinks or read in a pitch black room. Purity is corrupted by impurity and darkness simply cannot coexist with light. It was just plain common sense to our ancestors. And it was terrifying.
Perhaps because the idea of the Last Judgment really is terrifying and fraught with anxiety for anyone who bothers to contemplate it, our over-
Yet, for all the very real spiritual anxiety we ought to feel when we contemplate our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, we are also given reason to hope. While nothing, ever, excuses us for the wrongs we commit and the good we fail to do, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment we are shown the way out of our predicament. And that way is grounded in Love.
“And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 4:8, Proverbs 10:12)
In the quote above, taken from St. Peter’s first letter, we are not told that love excuses sin, but that love covers or overcomes a multitude of sins. Of course, our love must be true and not mere legalism. But, if we truly love our neighbor and our hearts are moved by their need, then God, who is always compassionate, will cover our sins. The gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25: 31-
When we act toward others as if they were Christ Himself, we have accomplished that perfect love that covers all sin because we have emulated His love.
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: ‘for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;’I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? ’When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? ’Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 24: 34-
On the Last and Terrible Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment, Doom’s Day, every one of us will stand before our Master and answer the same question, “Do you love Me?” (John 21:14-
Knowing the commandments of the Lord,
let us conduct our lives in this way:
let us nourish the hungry, let us give drink to the thirsty;
let us clothe the naked, let us welcome the strangers;
let us visit the sick, the infirm, and those in prison,
so that He Who is coming to judge the whole earth, may say to us:
“Come, O blessed ones of My Father,
inherit the Kingdom which has been prepared for you!” (Vespers, Last Judgment)
Perhaps the most frightening question we have to consider is this: Who will bear witness for us on that terrible day? Who will come forward to bury the multitude of our sins with the evidence of our love?
As we enter into Holy Lent, recall this: On the final day you will not be asked to recite the Creed, nor will you be asked to define the Orthodox understanding of the Procession of the Holy Spirit, nor the Church’s teaching about original sin, the role of bishops, and our differences with others on all these things, as important as they may be. You will simply be asked, “Do you love Me?” and the on the strength of the witness of others you will enter your eternity.
"Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.” (Mark 8:34-
“Come all the faithful, let us worship Christ’s holy Resurrection; for behold, through the Cross, joy has come in to all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, let us praise his holy Resurrection. For having endured the Cross for us, he has destroyed death by death.” (Matins of the Resurrection)
On the Third Sunday in Great Lent those who arrive in Church early enough to hear the Matins Canon are often surprised to hear selections from the Odes of Pascha. This is no mistake, though. We are reminded in mid-
Historically, Orthodox churches have never displayed images of Christ in agony on the cross, writhing in pain and dripping blood from the crown of thorns. For those of us who grew up in Roman Catholic families, such images were common—perhaps the most common images of Christ. But, while the Orthodox never forget the suffering of the cross—which we will hear witnessed most graphically during the services of Holy Thursday and Holy Friday—we experience that suffering in the context of joy. This is the great paradox, that “through the cross, joy has come into the world.” The very real agony of our Lord during those hours on Great and Holy Friday are swallowed up in victory, in life, in light, and in the greatest of all possible joys—His Resurrection. For this reason, we do not allow ourselves to focus on the cross outside the context of victory. To look too much on the suffering of the cross can lead to the danger of not remembering well enough the glory of the Resurrection. Yet, one cannot be without the other. It is simply a matter of where we put the focus.
As we meditate on the meaning of the Cross in our own lives we have to remind ourselves that there can be no resurrection without the cross. The Lord’s call for us to “pick up (our) own cross” and follow Him is not mere hyperbole. The cross that we are required to carry is a real one, and may manifest itself in different ways throughout our life. The key is that our cross is always connected to a witness of His cross. In the suffering we experience in carrying our own cross (always with His help) we are called to bear witness to the power of His cross, and ultimately, to the joy of His resurrection.
We have all known people who have shown in their own lives and sufferings the joyous power of the Cross. I recall well how many people I have witnessed in my parish ministry who have managed to transform what would otherwise be misery into joy. I have witnessed people with cancer wasting away while affirming to power and goodness of life to all those around them, and giving thanks to God for all His goodness. This is the power of the cross in our lives, the radiant power of joy that overcomes suffering and grief and points to the never ending day of Resurrection. I have known others who struggled through great emotional and mental grief in their marriage and family life, and who, through prayer and steadfast faithfulness brought loved ones back to Christ. It is a beautiful thing to read the story of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, praying for her son’s return to faith; it is even more beautiful to see it for oneself acted out in the life of a person you know. I saw it directly in the experience of a woman who prayed for her truly wicked husband to turn back to God when everyone else around her told her to leave him. I myself had grave doubts about this person and could see the harm he was doing to those around him. And yet, this man was changed—I am convinced and, even more important, he is convinced, by the silent force of his wife’s prayers. He returned to God, grateful for His mercy and for the intercessions of his wife. She bore her cross, and for a time, her husband’s, so that “joy might enter the world”. This woman would tell you that she was able to do this only through the prayers and intercessions of the Theotokos and all the saints, and by the mighty power of the Cross of Christ. These stories from our own times illustrate in plain and simple language the Lord’s call for us to take up our cross and follow Him.
All too often in this world we seek to avoid the cross, we try to run from it and fill our life with other things—things that we think will give us peace and joy. We seek wealth, pleasure, positions of power and authority. But, in the end, these things leave us empty. Some of us may seek gratification in sex, food, alcohol or drugs, only to be led to destruction, illness, shame, and sorrow. The point is that nothing in this world or from this world—if it is disconnected from the Kingdom of God, the Cross of the Lord, the Light of His resurrection—can give us what we truly need. The wise among us learn this early, the saints among us learn it well, but all of us have to come to the understanding that our ultimate joy and meaning can only be found in Jesus Christ with His Father and the Holy Spirit. Every good thing proceeds from God and, in our broken world, has been paid for by the saving power of the Cross. If we are to be truly free and happy we must acknowledge this with our whole heart.
So, as we deepen our journey into Great Lent and on toward the unending Day of Resurrection, may we all embrace the cross with joy, for it is indeed our hope, our joy, and our victory over darkness and death.