Marin Mihalache 
BETWEEN THE AGONY OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION

Every year since Christ’s Resurrection the believers throughout the world proclaim with joy the good tidings that “Christ is risen!” And those who receive the good news acknowledge themselves in the same manner and spirit “Indeed is risen!” According to Saint Paul, the Resurrection is the greatest test of the veracity of the Christian faith itself, for “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” But while Christ has risen indeed, for the mortal man, however, that day of expectation of personal resurrection has not yet come. The Christians like any other human beings are still dying. But they assume by faith the good news and expect with joy and hope their own resurrection as promised by Christ. For the Christians alike those who do not believe in the Resurrection the death is still a grief-stricken reality and a tragic experience of separation. We are on the road, on the Way, but not yet at the dawning of that bright eschatological Sunday, the day of our resurrection; we are still in the Saturday within the confines of this world ridden by struggle for life and the agony of death. Mortality and hope, this is our very condition between the Day of Christ’s Resurrection and our own resurrection at the end of ages. For this reason, as long as we are still in this world, we are in the day of Holy Saturday, the day between the Holy Friday of Christ’s Crucifixion and the Sunday of His Resurrection. The Holy Saturday is therefore perceived by us as very long day, a day of expectation and hope. This is our implacable condition and there is no cure, remedy, consolation or other hope that we know about. The elixir of immortality is still an illusion, a perspective not yet or never at hand, so far as we know. And so, we have no other choice or alternative but to hopefully wait all the day Saturday, a long, long day, for the miracle and the revelation of the life-giving tomb, for the blessed Sabbath, for that pass-over from our death to life in Christ. By faith we accept and participate in Christ’s victory over the evil of death with full conviction that He has shattered forever the vicious circle of sin and death trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

Those who are Christians, and is no true Christian without believing in Christ’s Resurrection, by His death Jesus Christ destroyed death thus inaugurating a new life in the world, a new beginning of a mystical yet real eschatology. The initial sorrow of His death begins right at this moment which seems to be a cosmic lamentation over His tomb, contemplating his death, participating mystically to his funeral. During the Orthodox Christians holy services of Vespers one can hear the psalmist’s the sad lamentation: “Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit/in the regions dark and deep” (Psalm 88:6) and “O Lord, o God of my salvation: /I call for help by day/I cry out in the night before Thee!” Only that in reality Jesus Christ was not overcome by the powers of darkness and death. The illusive victory of death was soon to be overturned by the power of the Son of Man. He who was and ever is the Life and the Light of the world entered death and thoroughly searched for man, his fallen brothers and sisters who through Adam were kept prisoners by the death. Christ found Adam himself and opened from inside the gates of hell, emptying the tombs and bestowing life upon those kept there by the powers of darkness. By this act of liberation suddenly all the sorrow and lamentation was transformed into the joy of victory. The resentment and the sorrow of the past caused by death and evil have been transformed into the joy of resurrection, the hope for all mankind for a new life. The hell itself was shuddered and its lacked gates smashed. Adam shouted of joy and thanksgiving giving glory and Christ’s victory by destroying the power of death. By raising Adam from his ancestral tomb Christ has saved all man, Adam’s descendants from hell. Christ’s death, His voluntary descent into Hades has been an act of love and has been done on behalf man. By their own powers, Adam and the natural man could not overcome death. The natural man could not be saved by himself. It was necessary that God intervened; only his power, the power of Jesus Christ, both man and God, could overcome the power of devil, sin and death. Jesus descended into the grave and into the Hell and over there a direct battle took place between Christ and death, between Christ and Satan, between the Author of Life, the Light of the world and the powers of darkness of Hades. Satan, the prince of this world has deceived and stolen the bodies and the souls from this world and has condemned man to destruction and despair. And Christ has entered death through the gates of hell to claim the lost souls.

In the garden in the night before Crucifixion, Jesus prayed to the Father to take away from Him the cup of death. Nevertheless, for this decisive battle Jesus Christ has come into the world. Accepting the will of the Father, by his voluntary death He let the light of His resurrection shine in the darkness of the grave. Jesus was and is the Life itself, the light of the world, and the darkness could not overcome the Light. He was the Light who descended in the pit of hell and preached not only to the living but also to the dead about the new life in Him. He was, is and shall be the light and the life of each man coming in this world. As man Jesus died, but being at the same time Holy immortal, the Son of God, He has assumed the death itself by trampling it down from inside and overcoming it. The death was a powerful reality and yet it did not have dominion over the Son of God. Thus, Jesus not only own victory for Himself over death, but He also gained the salvation for all mankind in this cosmic battle with the death and darkness. This was meaning and the goal of the Gospel of Incarnation, of God becoming man, and the reason for which the Father gave His only begotten Son to die. Through Him the sin and evil were overcome, thus granting to humanity a real hope of salvation.

During the religious services performed in the Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church already proclaims with joy the anticipation of Christ’s victory over the death: “Going down to death, O life immortal/ thou slain hell with dazzling light of Thy divinity. And when Thou hast raised up the dead from their dwelling place beneath the earth, /all the powers of heaven cried out: “Giver of life, O Christ our God, glory to Thee.” Through its beautiful hymns, the Church teaches that it would have been impossible otherwise; it would have been a contradiction and impossibility for the Light of the world to remain in the darkness of a grave: “O life, how can Thou die? How can Thou dwell in a tomb?” or “How do we see the giver of life now dead? / How is God enclosed within a tomb?”

After His Crucifixion on Holy Friday, on Holy Saturday, Christ descended into the tomb and with Him the light entered into the kingdom of death. Jesus Christ is the Fountain of Life and of the Light, and His Life and Light brought the life and light into tomb. The darkness of death was overcome by Christ’s life and light. The hymnology of the Orthodox Church describes poetically this encounter between light and darkness: “The life sleeps and Hades trembles.” Even the angels were filed with wonder “beholding Him who rests in the bosom of the Father lay in the Tomb as one dead, though He is immortal.”

Suffering the death in accordance with the plan of salvation, He inaugurated the beginning of the risen life over which “death has no dominion”. Holy Saturday is indeed the blessed Sabbath when God rests on His works. It is also the day of anticipation and expectation of the Holy Pascha, Christ’s Resurrection. Again, the Paschal hymns of the Holy Saturday are revealing that the women who came to anoint Him with mirth, weeping bitterly they cried: “On the third day He shall rise again”. For they know that even Moses prefigured this day and this is the hope reaffirmed by Christ Himself. Again, the canon of Great Saturday proclaims: “Let creation rejoice!” For by His death and Resurrection on the third day, Jesus Christ has redeemed Adam and Eve and all their descendants.

The Prokeimenon of the Holy Saturday opens the gates of hope like Christ opened the gates of death and hell: “Arise o Lord, help us and deliver us, for the glory of Thy name, o God, we have heard with our ears…” Saint Gregory of Nazianzus explained the mystery of the resurrecting cross saying the Jesus lay down His own life, but the same Jesus had and has the power to take the life again and by Christ’s Resurrection the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise… He dies, but He is Life and has the power to give Life and to destroy the death. By his death Jesus Christ goes into the darkness of Hades and claims the souls of those departed from life. According to the Revelation Jesus Himself declared without a shadow of doubt: “I am the first and the last; I am He that liveth, and was dead: and behold. I ‘am alive for evermore. Amen. And I have the key of the death and of the Hades (Revelation 1:17-18).

The Christian’s hope has roots and justification in this victory of Christ over death. The Holy Church calls her faithful: “Come, ye people, let us praise and worship Christ… For Jesus is our God who has delivered the world from the delusion of the enemy.” In this world, the death still exists, but the death has no tyrannical power over those Christians who believe in Resurrection. Saint John Chrysostom preached with conviction: “It is true, we still die as before, but we don’t remain in death., and this is not to die…the power and very reality of death, is just this, that a dead man has no possibility of returning to life; but if after death he is to be quickened and moreover to be given a better life, that this is no longer death, but just a fallen asleep”.

This blessed hope and radical change in human condition was the fruit of the blessed Sabbath, of the Holy Pascha. Christ giving death destroyed Hades eliminating the last barrier in man’s history of salvation. A new life shone from the old grave and the gates of darkness were broken. The miracle of Ezekiel’s prophecy on the incarnation of the dry bones in the valley of the death has occurred already, has been fulfilled by the very miracle of Christ’s resurrection. The dead lives again and a new land of promise will be inaugurated in the world to come. The Sun of Resurrection already shines over the cemetery of man’s history and those waiting for the final and universal resurrection are already rejoicing in this expectation.

In Christ’s Resurrection we are saved because we are part of life and our life itself comes from Him and through Him, is a gift from God. This mystery of Christ’s own Resurrection is anticipatory, is an event which will take place in the future, for we are not yet resurrected. We are still in history, making history and the man’s history has been and continues to be a continual battle for the sake of redemption, a continual expectation of God the Savior. By His victory over the death, our victory also has been achieved, but is an event not yet fulfilled or completed. Nevertheless, we have the assurance that if “the spirit dwells in you, then will he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead call to life your mortal bodies also through the Spirit dwelling in you” (Romans 8:11).

We live now in our own Saturday of this world, between our own Friday and Sunday. We are waiting for the Lord Jesus Christ to confirm our lowly body to the holy body of his Glory (Phil. 3:21). By faith we know that “Christ has conquered death and already brought life and incorruptibility to light” (2 Tim. 1:10). Christ is the first resurrected “and we are in expectation of our own resurrection which will take place at end. Death is conquered, but it will not be abolished until the End as last enemy” (Cor. 15:26) when “Death will be cast out into a pool of fire…” and “Death will be no more” (Apocalypse 20:14).

Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection not only makes us free from the death, but grant us the fullness of new life indeed. The mankind is no longer victim of the death because through Christ all who are in Christ are victors. The expectation of resurrection gives comfort to our souls: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ... For he must reign until he has subdued his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:22-26)

Saint Paul wrote that “when perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality then “Death is swallowed up in victory”, “O death, where is thy sting?”, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15: 54-57). In this hope, the Orthodox Church services of the Paschal Vigil proclaims with great joy and jubilation: “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered” (Psalm 68, 1). However, we are all aware that our hour of resurrection has not come yet. We still have to accept to die. Our reality in this world is the Great Saturday, a perfect image of the human condition.

Christians who believe in Christ’s Resurrection are still in continual expectation to say again: “Christ is risen!” or to answer “Indeed is risen!” The life remains for man a divine gift to face the death in this “aeon”. But we know that the death is not invincible. Facing Heaven, Hades lost its mortal sting. Through Christ’s death and resurrection our passage to the day when the death shall be no more (Rev. 21:4) has already begun in Christ. Saint John Chrysostom thoughtfully preached: “Let no one be fearful of death for the death of the Savior has set us free. He has conquered death by being subdued it. He despoiled Hades which received a body encountering God. It received mortal dust, and met Heaven face to face… O Death, where is your sting! O Hades, where is your victory?” Because of this final victory we are fighting with hope our own battles in the Great Saturday which is our very life between the day of Christ’s Resurrection and ours.

We are still in expectation of that new resurrected life and light to shine forth from the grave. But to be worthy to partake “without condemnation” the gift of eternal life we have to commit our own spirits in the hands of God. For Christ himself assured us that those “who lives and believes in shall never die”. (John 11:26). Saint Paul also taught that:“We were buried with Christ into death so as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We are now, however, in “the journey to Pascha”, the Orthodox Christians are in the Holy Saturday waiting for the Pasha of the Resurrected Christ. It is the longest day, like our expectation itself, since we are in this world. But in this “middle day”, between Cross and Resurrection, “Lords of Lords” is approaching to us. It is the hymn of “entrance” which announces us that Christ Himself was sanctified to give to His faithful “the food” of immortality. The Holy Sabbath is not only the beginning of the risen life over which “death has no dominion”, but also became the day of the Eucharist when the Christian Orthodox receive the transfigured Body and Blood of Christ becoming true partakers of His Resurrection.

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