Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on Pascha, noting one of the curiosities of the Bible. The entire Old Testament says relatively little about what happens to a person after they die and this despite the fact that death and dying is everywhere in the scriptures. The same is true in the New Testament – Jesus rises from the dead and returns to the apostles yet no one asks him about what it is like to be dead. For Schmemann, the reason for this lack of curiosity about death becomes obvious in the New Testament – Christ came to destroy death, not describe it. His goal was to overcome death not to accept it as inevitable or in some way acceptable. Death is God’s enemy and Christ shows God’s power over death, sin, and hell. And it turns out that death is no more powerful nor permanent than a night’s sleep from which we are awaken.
“Indeed, there is plenty of death and dying in the Old Testament, and yet—read it!—there is no curiosity about death, no interest in it apart from God. If death is lamented, it is because it is separation from God—the inability to praise him, to seek him, to see him, and to enjoy his presence. The very survival of man in Sheol, in the dark kingdom of death, is above all the pain of being separated from God, the darkness and despair of solitude. Thus, in the Old Testament, death has already lost its autonomy and is no longer the object of religion, having no meaning in itself, but only in relation to God.
However, it is in the New Testament, of course, in the Gospels, that we find the fulfillment of this ‘God-centered’ understanding of death, of the revolution initiated, announced, and prepared in the Old Testament. What does the gospel announce? First, that in the life and teachings, in the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, death is revealed as the enemy, as the corruption that entered the world created by God and transformed it into a valley of death. ‘And the last enemy shall be abolished—death’ (1 Cor 15:26). There is no longer any question of taming death, of making it natural or beautifying it. Death is an insult to God who did not create death. Second, the gospel announces that death is the fruit of sin. ‘Through sin,’ writes St Paul, ‘death entered the world’ (Rom 5:12). Death is the ransom of sin as man’s disobedience to God, man’s rejection of life in God. It is the rejection of God for the sake of man’s life in and for himself, the result of man’s alienation from God in whom alone is life and the life of man. Death, therefore, must be destroyed as the spiritual reality of man’s separation from God—hence, the gospel, the Good News. Christ has destroyed death by trampling it with his own death. He has no death in him, yet he accepted it voluntarily, and this acceptance is made up entirely of his obedience to his Father, of his love for creation and for man.
Under the guise of death, Divine Love itself enters Sheol, overcoming the separation and solitude. Dispelling the darkness of hades, Christ’s death is a divine and radiant act of love, and in his death, therefore, the spiritual reality of death is abolished. Finally, the Christian gospel announces that with Christ’s resurrection a new life—a life which has no death in it—is given to all those who believe in him and are united with him. They unite with him first through baptism, which is their own descent into Christ’s ‘deathless death,’ their own partaking of the glory of resurrection. They are united to him through anointing with the Holy Spirit, the giver and content of that new Christ-life, and they unite with him through the Eucharist, which is their participation in his glorious ascension to heaven and their partaking at his table in the kingdom of his immortal life. And thus death is no more. Death has been swallowed up (1 Cor 15:54).” (THE LITURGY OF DEATH, pp 44-46)
This is the day of resurrection,
Let us be illumined, O people.
Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord!
For from death to life,
And from earth to heaven,
Has Christ our God led us.
As we sing the song of victory:
Christ is risen from the dead!