“If Christ is not Risen . . .”
Fr. Bohdan Hladio
“Orthodoxy sees humanity’s problem as its bondage to sin, death and the devil. . . What is assured in Christ’s incarnation, pursued in his life and reached for in his death – namely, eternal life, communion with God and victory over our enemies – is only achieved fully and completely when Christ rises from the grave. . . in Eastern Orthodoxy. . . Easter is celebrated as the great day in which salvation is assured and achieved. The Easter vigil service in an Orthodox Church is an elaborate, overwhelmingly joyful celebration. Anyone who attends such a service will have no doubt about the primary importance ascribed by the Orthodox to the resurrection of Christ for our salvation.” (Dr. James Payton, Light from the Christian East, p. 129)
Dr. Payton in his wonderful book reminds us of something we Orthodox often take for granted – the “Resurrection centredness” of our faith.
Death is the central and inexorable fact of our biological existence. We’ve all probably experienced the death of a loved one, and unless we experience the second coming of Christ we will certainly die ourselves. The way we conduct our life depends entirely upon our convictions regarding death.
For many people Easter is simply an opportunity to spend time with family and friends. For others it’s a chance to self-identify with a particular culture or tradition. For still others it’s just a myth.
For Christians Pascha – Christ’s resurrection and victory over death – is the very foundation of our faith.
St. Paul says “. . . 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 – if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” (I Cor. 15:14 – 19)
As St. Paul emphasizes, if Christ is not risen our loved ones have perished. They will not rise. They, and eventually we, simply cease to exist, leaving no trace in a universe that itself will perish.
If Christ is not risen our faith is nonsense. As far as “religion” understood as a human phenomenon is concerned Christianity has nothing to offer but the resurrection.
If Christ is not risen our sacraments are a sham – how can bread and wine become the body and blood of a resurrected Christ who has not been raised bodily?
If Christ is not risen our sins are not forgiven; there is no justice for perpetrators of evil or their victims; we have no hope.
As C.S. Lewis notes in Miracles, “In the earliest days of Christianity an ‘apostle’ was first and foremost a man who claimed to be an eyewitness of the Resurrection.” (cf. Acts 1:22; I Cor. 9:1).
Countless martyrs to this very day have sacrificed their lives not for a religion, but for a Person. They, as the apostles before them, claim to have in some mysterious way seen the risen Christ, experienced the reality of the resurrection, and became convinced that He lives, reigns, and acts. For them the reality of Christ was more real than the greatest pleasures or the worst tortures this world can offer.
“Let us purify our senses, and in the unapproachable light of the resurrection we shall see Christ shining forth, and we shall clearly hear Him saying, ‘Rejoice!’ as we sing a song of victory.” (Paschal Canon, 1st canticle).
The victory which Orthodox Christians celebrate so joyfully in the Paschal services is victory over sin and death. We are able to see Christ, experience this victory, and rejoice to the degree that our senses are purified – i.e., to the extent that we fulfill the commandments of God and the teaching of Christ.
If Christ truly is risen, if our Paschal joy is grounded in reality and truth, then the dead still somehow live, and we will be raised bodily with them.
If Christ truly is risen “forgiveness has dawned forth from the tomb”.
If Christ truly is risen our most trivial and seemingly insignificant words, deeds and thoughts are infinitely important, as they and their consequences will remain with us eternally.
If Christ truly is risen unrepentant sinners and evildoers will suffer the eternal consequences of Divine Justice.
If Christ truly is risen those who love God and fulfill His commandments will enjoy perpetual communion with Him, and our prayers, worship, sacraments, deeds of mercy – everything we do out of love for Christ and neighbour – will shine forever before the throne of God.
May we joyfully celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death not only on Pascha, but every Sunday. May the light of the Resurrection permeate every facet of our life, giving us the strength and hope necessary to respond to the trials, difficulties, illness and death which are an inescapable part of life in this world.
“O Great and most holy Pascha, Christ! O Wisdom and Word of God and Power! Grant that we may partake of You fully in the never-ending day of Your Kingdom!” (Paschal Canon, 9th canticle)
Fr. Bohdan Hladio