For over two thousand years, the faithful have announced and worshipped our Lord’s magnificent Resurrection. Each Sunday is a “Small Pascha” in which we recount Christ’s victory over death, and are given a small taste of the timeless joy that has been accomplished for our sakes. But tonight feels different. Tonight our celebration, our joy, seems fuller and more deliberate. More than a passing glance, or an accustomed weekly habit, tonight the proclamation that Christ is Risen resonates deeper within us. As Saint John Chrysostom says in his famous Paschal Homily:
TONIGHT ‘Christ is risen, and there is none dead in the tomb…’
What a profound and powerful statement. One without any qualifiers or conditions. A triumphant announcement reserved for the holiest night of the year. The night that death has become no more!
But is it true? Christ has risen, but then why do we still see death in our midst? Why do we still bid farewell to loved ones who have breathed their last? The sting of death has pricked the hearts of all (and for some of us gathered here, very recently). How then can we say that ‘there is none dead in the tomb’, that Christ has conquered death by death?
The answer is found when we understand the true definition of death. For the world around us, death is simply the moment when a living creature’s cells permanently cease functioning. It is the moment when the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing, the lungs stop inhaling, the mind stops firing. But in the advent of our Lord we now know that death is the separation from God. For even after our heart, blood, lungs, and mind stop working, Christ has paved the way for our souls to rejoice in meeting God in His Kingdom even after our bodies fail us. Prior to our Lord’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, the whole human race could only experience God in passing glances, through intermediaries, and from a distance…AND they could only do so while their bodies were still alive. When these men and women of old before Christ died, they entered into a dark abyss, possessing nothing, knowing nothing, experiencing nothing but the bleak separation and dreadful from God. This left the human race crying out for a Savior, One who would reunite heaven and earth, God and creation.
That is precisely what the world found when our Lord came and died on the Cross! A Savior who opened the eyes of the blind, and illumined all those in the perpetual darkness of sin and death. And how? But enduring that very darkness and death for us, not just a worldly death but the true sense of it as well:
‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Mat. 27:46)
Christ went where His Father and Life-Creating Spirit were not: Hell itself! Hell was more than happy to oblige, eagerly opening wide thinking foolishly that it had finally overcome God and taken Him as its prisoner. Hell opened up, as John Chrysostom says, to take in flesh — and opened itself to God. In doing so, Hell allowed the Light to enter into its darkness, and do what had previously been impossible, to reunite those who were dead and separated from God. Tonight, Hell is no longer the terrible place of separation, because the living God is now inside it! It is just as the Prophet David foretold:
’Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in HELL, behold, You are there’ (Psalm 139:7-8)
Today, thanks to Christ’s victory, death has become for us something else. With Hell destroyed by it’s own folly, now death is a falling asleep. Our bodies gently fall asleep to the anxieties of the earth, and peace comes upon our members as if a small child resting in her Father’s arms. Everyone who dies now, falls asleep in Christ, so the body can await Resurrection of perfect life (without the pains of aging, illness, injury, or sorrow), while the soul enters into eternal life with God. This is full radiant truth that has Risen with Christ from the dead, and dawned over all creation.
Yet true spiritual “death,” the separation from God, is still present on earth to a certain extent. There is no need to look far: many of us can, unfortunately, see it in the lives of our coworkers or classmates. What’s worse is that if we look intently in our own circles, we may even see this separation from God in places within our own Church and perhaps even our own households. How many of those we encounter (and perhaps even some of us here) do not live lives united with Christ? How many of us still operate without His Grace and love impacting and directing our lives? It is true that God has conquered death everywhere, but sadly the heart of man can only be conquered by man himself.
The truth is, unlike Light and Darkness, death and love cannot be separated. As John the Beloved wrote: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). This is exactly how the Lord loved us, by giving Himself over to the horrors of death so we no longer have to.
This is our challenge tonight. Why does tonight feel different from all of our Sunday morning “Small Pascha” Celebrations? Is it because it is nearly midnight rather than morning, or because we are dressed in our Easter best? Or perhaps is it because for the first time in over a year we are finally no longer separated from each other? Is it possible that we have been experiencing a kind of death from our loved ones in isolation, and now we see Christ, the Great Unifying Force bringing us all back together?
Tonight let us not be casual in our celebration. This is no mere Church service, no common gathering, no ordinary experience. Tonight let us not be satisfied with simply looking on from a afar, or settling to only touch the hem of the Lord’s garment. Do not stand by and let others receive the Light of Christ that casts out darkness and death itself, but instead embrace it and nurture it and experience the FULLNESS OF CHRIST’S VICTORY tonight.
We can only do this together. We need each other to receive and spread the Light of our Lord. We must die with Christ, a death that is not of the body, but of the spirit. A death to self-conceit that says “I will no longer forsake others in order to please my own will.” A death to passions that promises “I will curb my own appetites in favor of the Lord’s fullness.” And a death to separation that declares “I will join in celebration with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and never be separated from God again!”
Christ has proven that death can be overcome, and that we can overcome it too with Him. This is the Light of Truth that can never be extinguished. Now that this Light of His Resurrection has dawned in our hearts, we never need be apart from Him so long as we never let His Light set again. TONIGHT do not remain at a distance. Do not just rejoice only at seeing the Lord’s light on earth re-illumined, but receive it yourselves and rejoice that He has fully illumined US as well.
Come Receive the Light!…