The Afterlife

“Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”  (Acts 2:29)

“…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”  (Matthew 12:26-27)

In the Scriptures, belief in the resurrection of the dead is not common.  When a person died, they remained dead throughout time – the tombs of the dead are still with us reminding us those folk are still dead. And yet, Jesus challenges His contemporaries to look again at their scriptures, for they do in fact witness to life after death and to the resurrection of the dead.  It is Christ who makes this belief and teaching possible.

“Still, the notion of an ‘afterlife with God,’ following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever afterexistence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real life.” (Patrick Henry Reardon, The Trial of Job, p. 54

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Conquering the Fear of Death

“How can the Christian overcome the fear of death? The faith that is central to the hope of Christians is the recognition of Christ’s conquest of death and that his resurrection is the first fruits, the guarantee of the universal resurrection of all human beings at the end of time. ‘In order to be able to face death one must be anchored in the certainty, an experiential and not only theoretical certainty, of eternal life. . .   there is in this possession of eternal life a certainty that reduces to naught the fear of death–not the pain of separation, not the regret that death exists, but the fear.’”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, M.D., Suffering and the Nature of Healing, pp. 253-254)

Paralyses

Two Pentecostarion hymns from the 4th Week of Pascha caught my attention during Monday Matins.  The first is a pretty standard Orthodox Paschal hymn. It focuses on Christ being truly first in all things.  Christ is the one who existed first, before all humans and in whose image all humans are created.  Christ is the firstborn of the dead – first fully risen from the dead who did not die again, the first fruits of all those who have died.  Jesus is the God-man, the incarnate God who created the world and who by His incarnation restores human nature.

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD,
THE FIRST FRUITS OF THEM THAT SLEEP,
THE FIRSTBORN OF ALL CREATION,
AND THE MAKER OF ALL CREATED THINGS.
IN HIS FLESH HE RESTORED THE NATURE OF MANKIND GROWN CORRUPT.
DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER,
FOR THE MASTER OF ALL HAS MADE YOUR POWER OF NO AVAIL!

DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER!   This is the proclamation of Christianity, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The power of death has been destroyed, shown to be of limited duration and not capable to holding all humans.  The reign of Christ begins and He shall reign forever and ever.  It is in Christ’s flesh, not just in His divinity, that He redeems, restores, recreates humanity.  The incarnation is essential to salvation.

The second hymn focuses on the Gospel of the Paralytic, John 5:1-15, which is the Gospel Lesson for the 4th Sunday after Pascha.  The hymns playfully examines who really was paralyzed – the man ill for 38 years, or the scribes who felt God’s healing on the Sabbath day violates the rules for keeping Sabbath.  There are many forms of paralyses in life – not only physical, but spiritual, mental, and moral as well.  One can keep the letter of the law but still be paralyzed in one’s faith, love and thought – so rigidly frozen that one is incapable of acting in faith or in love.

YOU LOOSED THE PARALYTIC’S BONDS ON THE SABBATH DAY,
BUT THE SCRIBES WERE PARALYZED, BOUND IN ENVY’S CHAINS.
THEY COMPLAINED: IT IS NOT LAWFUL TO HEAL ON THE SABBATH!
OUR FATHERS KEPT THE SABBATH REST;
WILL YOU NOW DESTROY THIS COMMAND?
THEY WOULD NOT RECOGNIZE YOU AS MASTER OF THE LAW,
AND THE SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!

Jesus kept the blessed Sabbath on the 7th day of creation, and also while lying in the tomb following His crucifixion.  His resurrection from the dead shows He is the holy One, the Savior of all humankind and Lord of the Sabbath.

When Death Wept

At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion.  They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades.  Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God.  These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God.  Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades.  In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.

In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God.  Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like.  He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either.    Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God.  Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures.  By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven!  So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:

“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.

Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)

Bright Saturday (2017)

“Before the dawn Mary and the women came and found the stone rolled away from the tomb.  They heard the angelic voice: ‘Why do you seek among the dead as a man the one who is everlasting light?  Behold the clothes in the grave!  Go and proclaim to the world: The Lord is risen!  He has slain death, as He is the Son of God, saving the race of men.”  (Hours of Pascha)

The myrrhbearing women do not find Christ or Christ’s body in the tomb – the tomb is empty.  By itself it proves nothing – the women assume grave robbers have stolen the corpse of Jesus.

The women are not told to return to the tomb and make it a shrine – there are no relics there.  They are to tell the disciples to find Jesus, but not at the tomb, but rather in Gallilee.  The Apostles are told to go into all the world with the message of the resurrection – they aren’t told that meditating at the tomb of Jesus will make them holy.  They weren’t to turn the resurrection into religion, rather they were to show the world how they were transformed by the news of Christ’s resurrection.  Christ is eternal light not a resuscitated corpse that we can parade about in religious ceremony.  Our goal as Christians is not to make a pilgrimage to the holy sepulcher – we are given no such commandment.  Nor is the goal set annually to Pascha night.  Our goal is to live the resurrection so that everyone will come to embrace Christ our Savior. The myrrhbearing women may have had to go to the tomb to learn of the resurrection, but they are told they’ve come to the wrong place if they are looking for Christ.  He is not at the holy sepulcher, He is Lord of the Sabbath and of the universe.  He is known in the proclamation of the Scriptures and in the eating of the Eucharist.  He is Lord of the Sabbath and the universe.

Bright Friday (2017)

“Through death You transformed what is mortal, and through burial You transformed what is corruptible; for in a manner befitting God You made incorrupt and immortal the nature which You had assumed, since Your flesh did not see corruption and in a wondrous manner Your soul was not abandoned in hell.” (Pascha Nocturnes)

In the incarnation, God the Son, took on sinful, fallen human flesh.  He transfigures that flesh – transforming what was mortal and corruptible, making even the flesh incorruptible and immortal.

According to Genesis 2 when God created humans, God formed the dust of the earth into a body and then breathed life into that dust.  In the resurrection, God is no longer outside of creation, but has become creation, and from within renews human nature.  God in Christ takes on our fallen human nature, suffers death, and then transforms and transfigures the human nature and the human body which He has taken on in the incarnation.  No longer from the outside does God shape us and give us life, but now from within God transforms His creation.  Not from heaven, but from Hades does God transform us and give us eternal life depriving Hades of holding on to us, and restoring mortal human nature to life – ending humanity’s separation from God.

Christ as God enters into the place of the dead and saves not just souls, but the entirety of what it is to be human including our bodies.

 

Bright Thursday (2017)

“We celebrated the death of death and the overthrow of hell, the beginning of another life which is eternal, and in exultation we sing the praises of its source.  He alone is blessed and most glorious, the God of our fathers.”    (Pascha Matins)

Christ, the incarnate God, is the source of eternal life. By His death, He destroys death – Death cannot hold the Christ and is forced to surrender to God all those whom Death had held captive.  Christ is our liberator from death; salvation is liberation from bondage to Death.  The Gospel message which Christianity proclaimed to the world from the beginning: “Christ is risen from the dead!”  The implication is shocking: Christ defeats death, which is our enemy.  Christianity came to understand that all the suffering, sorrow, grief, impermanence, morbidity and mortality of this world results from our separation from God.  God in Christ is the Good Shepherd seeking us His lost sheep, separated from Him, battered by sin and hunted down by death.  Christ carries us to His safe haven, making a path to the resurrection through the grave and through Hades itself.  We will follow our Lord in faith and with love.

Bright Wednesday (2017)

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“You came forth from a painless birth, O my Maker, and Your side was pierced.  By this, You, the New Adam, accomplished the restoration of Eve.  You fell into a sleep both surpassing and renewing nature and as the omnipotent One, You raised up life from sleep and corruption.”  (Pascha Nocturnes)

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Eve, according to Genesis 2, was taken by God from the side of Adam.  In the poetic theology of Orthodoxy, from Christ’s side at His crucifixion flowed the blood and water of the renewed creation, which brought redemption for Eve.  Eve is recreated from the side of the New Adam.  As Adam of old was put to sleep before Eve was taken from his side, so Christ is put to sleep on the cross and from His side, renewed/ resurrected humanity comes forth. God rested on the original Sabbath Day, rejoicing in the goodness of His creation.  After Christ “fell asleep” on the cross, God again rested on the Sabbath Day, but this time as a human, the incarnate God.  Rest, had become sleep, had become death.  Then, Jesus Christ raised from the dead resurrected Adam and renewed creation.

Bright Tuesday (2017)

“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.”  (Pascha Matins)

In the book of Exodus, the Passover took the Jews out of  slavery in Egypt and put them on the road to the Promised Land.  Now, Christ who is the new Passover, leads us victoriously, not merely from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, but from earth to heaven and from death to life.  Our slavery to sin and death is brought to an end and we are brought to eternal life, where sickness, sighing and sorrow have fled away.  The Exodus of the Old Testament were a foreshadowing and a type of what was to come with Christ.

The Jews were commanded to commemorate the Passover each year, not to keep looking to the past, but as a prophecy, promise and reminder of what the Lord was going to do.  Those Christians who want to do a Seder to remember the Old Covenant Passover are looking in the wrong historical direction!  The Passover prepares God’s people for what God was going to do and is doing for all humanity in His Christ.  The Passover is not mostly about what God did for Jewish ancestors thousands of years ago.  Rather it is preparation for the future, for all that God is doing and is about to do for the salvation of all the world.    Even for us Christians, the resurrection – Pascha – is not looking backwards to what God did, but rather always looks forward to what God is doing now to move us to the eschaton, His heavenly Kingdom.

“… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14, emphasis not in the original text)

Christ is risen! Truly, He is risen!

Bright Monday (2017)

“Pascha of beauty, the Pascha of the Lord!  A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.  Pascha!  Let us embrace each other joyously.  O Pascha, ransom from affliction!  For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shown forth from the tomb and filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the apostles.”  (Pascha Matins)

Though the death of Christ stunned His disciples, causing them to flee into hiding because they feared for their own lives, His death turned out to be the source of the greatest joy for us humans.  Christ emerged from the tomb not as a zombie or the walking dead but as a glorious groom on His wedding day.  The resurrected Christ though having a physical body no longer seems to have been limited by His body but rather moved in and out of the physical world.  In the resurrected life, we are united to God, experiencing the divine life.  We now can proclaim the joyous good news to all the world: Christ is risen!