Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Leo Sevensky, OHC
Easter Vigil - Sunday, April 4, 2021
Easter is not sufficiently well understood if we think of it only as the time when we reaffirm our belief that Christ rose from the dead. That the historical fact of the resurrection is the keystone of the whole structure of Christian faith is still not sufficient reason why Easter should be the great feast that it is. ... This celebration does not merely recall the act by which we are liberated, it revives our freedom itself, in the renewal of the mystery in which we become free.
It still remains true that we do not understand Easter sufficiently well. I'm tempted to say that we don't understand Easter at all, though that is something of an exaggeration. But Easter is, I believe, less about understanding than it is about proclamation, and about the power of that proclamation to open within us, both personally and communally, a space where God can and does act in our lives.
Fifty years ago this month, I sat in Mercy Hospital in Scranton next to the bed where my mother lay dying of ovarian cancer. I forget the exact chronology, but I’m pretty sure it was the night before Orthodox Easter, or Pascha as they call it. I was spending the night attending to my mother's needs as well as my own, keeping vigil. And to pass the hours of that long night, I got my hands on an Orthodox Christian service book for the observance of Easter. It was the midnight service of Paschal Matins. As is true of most worship services in that tradition, the text was very long and convoluted and rather obscure with all sorts of biblical and Byzantine references. But I doggedly read through it that night, spreading it out over the dark hours. Frankly, I didn't understand much of it--perhaps most of it--as my mind and my heart were understandably elsewhere. But over and over the service was punctuated by a hymn called a troparion which was repeated countless times: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” And just the previous year, a college friend had invited me to his Russian church for Easter Matins. I knew that these words were not just recited but sung again and again. I could hear the echo of that music as I read them silently by my mother's side as she slept fitfully.
That long Matins service reaches a kind of climax with the reading of a sermon ascribed to St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century bishop of Constantinople. It has in fact been adapted for use in some Episcopal churches for their own Easter vigil. The sermon begins by inviting everyone present to the great banquet of this feast, whether or not they had observed the Lenten fast, whether or not they have labored in good works. For as the writer says: “The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.” The sermon concludes by echoing Saint Paul (1 Cor 15:55):
Oh death, where is your sting?O hell, where is your victory?Christ is risen, and you are cast down.Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom.Christ is risen, and the grave is emptied of the dead.
I found deep consolation and hope that night in this proclamation. But what exactly did it mean in that place, at that time, to say that Christ is risen? And what does it mean to say it today?
Like the Greeks of St. Paul’s day, we seek understanding. But meaning is not quite the same as understanding. It can be quite other and often much more profound. Beyond logic and beyond arguments, meaning captures essential truths, rooted in history but echoing through eternity. And meaning can and does open a space in us where hope—that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul” as Emily Dickinson describes it—can take flight.
There is a story which has fascinated me for decades, and which I have told many times, and which captures for me the sheer power of proclamation. It took place in Soviet Russia under Stalin's dictatorship, when persecution of the churches was especially severe. Church buildings were turned into Museums of Atheism, and the locals, peasants and intelligentsia alike, were herded in to listen to lectures about the folly of religious faith. One local Communist leader decided it would be edifying to have a debate with the old local Orthodox priest. So, the community was gathered in and the official launched into a two-hour attack on Christian faith and practice using the latest in dialectical reason, or at least what passed for reason, to repudiate soundly its claims and its message. The old priest was then brought to the podium and was ordered to respond to the official’s arguments. After a long pause, this old man of God drew himself upright and simply said in Church Slavonic Хрїсто́съ воскре́се! (Christ is risen!). And with one voice the assembly roared back Вои́стин воскре́се! (He is risen indeed!). Again, the priest shouted, “Christ is risen!” and back came the response, “He is risen indeed!” And a third time: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” And then the old priest sat down.
Who won that debate? What was understood? What was its meaning? Of course, just saying something over and over again doesn't make it true. Unless, unless…truth is about more than rationality and life is more than linear understanding and holiness is quite something other than winning debate points.
We stand here this morning in the face of a deep mystery rooted in time but touching the very center of our lives and hopes. We stand before a mystery which has been variously described in terms of an empty tomb or the harrowing of hell, in terms of resurrection appearances and encounters with the Crucified One perhaps extending over years, in terms of the Ascension and final glorification of Jesus. But the meaning exceeds the limitations of these descriptions and our human speech. It always will.
I do believe that Merton was on the right track when he said that this celebration does not merely recall the act by which we are liberated. It revives our very freedom itself and renews the mystery in which we ourselves become free. To borrow a phrase from Marcus Borg: we meet Jesus yet again for the first time. Jesus, who is Resurrection and Life, who is Freedom and Possibility, who is Hope writ large, even at the bedside of the dying, even at the graveside, even in the face of despotic governments and human or cosmic cruelty or our own small minds and constricted hearts. We meet Jesus who is the author and actor of a story that transcends and elevates our personal narratives, giving scope and permission and power to breath more freely and live more fully and to love more passionately and courageously and justly.
May this Eastertide revive in us our freedom and renew the mystery so that we may rejoice. And not only us, but people of every place and time together with the whole created order. This is the meaning of today…whether we understand it or not, whether we can make sense of it or not, whether we even feel it or not. It is God’s wonderful work, not ours. And that, my friends, is good news indeed.
Хрїсто́съ воскре́се! Christ is risen! Happy Easter!