Great and Holy Pascha: The Good News of Christ's Resurrection
Fr. Luke Veronis
In my early years as a missionary priest in Albania in the early 1990s, Pres. Faith and I spent our first Holy Week and Pascha in several villages that hadn’t celebrated Pascha for 26 years. In fact, all these churches had either been closed or destroyed, and people had been persecuted for expressing their faith in any way. What an unforgettable Holy Week we experienced, traveling from village to village, offering liturgical services, sharing and preaching our faith, while encountering the remains of militant atheism.
On Pascha night, we held services in one of the few large, surviving churches. This church was packed with several hundred people at midnight, many coming into a church out of curiosity for the first time in a generation. Some casually entered the church, lighting their cigarettes from the candles while smoking in the church. Other carelessly chatted and talked as if they were in a bazaar, oblivious of all that was going on around them. Most had little to no understanding of what was happening in the church service. Yet, we realized this was the beginning of trying to start a mission, to introduce to a religiously ignorant population the Good News about Jesus Christ and His miraculous resurrection.
During this week, one of my students shared with me a conversation between his parents, when they watched on television the film “Jesus of Nazareth,” which depicts the life of Jesus. My student had a father from a traditional Orthodox background, and a mother from a Muslim family. The Muslim mother was extremely touched by the life of Christ, especially when Jesus resurrected from the death, and asked her son, “Is that really true? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead?” But before my student could give an answer, his atheistic father sarcastically laughed, “That’s all a fairy tale, a myth. Simply a story for children to believe. Who has ever heard of someone rising from the dead? Ridiculous!”
That same week on Pascha Sunday, I had a very similar situation, when I went to someone’s house who had just died, to offer the Trisagion Prayers for the dead. At the service, I offered a few words about the hope we have in Christ’s Resurrection, especially since it was Easter Day. As I proclaimed “Christ is Risen!” the 60 year old son of the dead person scoffed at my words and sarcastically replied, “Don’t tell us such fairy tales. We know these stories are the opium of the people, as Karl Marx stated.”
Well, I responded, “You are free to believe whatever you want, and someone resurrecting from the dead absolutely appears ridiculous, yet for us Orthodox Christians, here lies the foundation of our faith. God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, willingly accepted and experienced death, and then conquered death itself! Christ rose from the dead to show death cannot contain Him! And anyone who chooses to follow Jesus Christ and His way of life, chooses to participate in this victory over death! Thus, we Christians can live life in a manner where we no longer fear death. Because Christ is Risen, we live each and every day with a new, joyous, spirit filled with hope and light!”
Yet, here lies the fundamental question for each one of us tonight as we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection and the great Feast of Holy Pascha. Do we choose to believe and truly participate in the joy, power and ultimate restoration of Christ’s Resurrection, or will we ignore this beautiful reality as simply some myth or fairy tale, like our secular society chooses to believe?!? Does the Resurrection of Christ affect our worldview of life, of how we live life? Will the forgiveness and mercy, will the love and hope, the victory that radiates from the Risen Lord be the spirit which we carry throughout our lives? The choice is ours! And the choice we make determines how we relate with everything else in our lives!
As a missionary in foreign lands, I realized quickly that this Good News of Christ’s Resurrection is the center of what I tried to proclaim, but I also realized as an Orthodox priest in 21st century America, the same is true. Christianity and the Church have offered much good to the world, from schools to hospitals to social care and movements that have changed society and positively touched the lives of millions. Yet, the greatest gift, above all, of Jesus Christ is the Good News of hope He gives in the face of evil, darkness and death itself.
The resurrection is central to everything we believe! It is the essential claim that differentiates Jesus from all other leaders of world religions. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and through this resurrection, He destroyed the power of death for us all! Neither Moses nor Muhammed nor Buddha or any other world religious leader claims this!
Think for a moment. Death is the greatest fear for countless people. We live in a world that tries to flat-out deny death, or at best tries to ignore it, as if death was the worst possible ending to life. We Christians, however, see death from a different perspective than the rest of the world. We live in the hope of the resurrection!
St. Paul states, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time (including death) are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us! … Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable. For this perishable body must put on immortality. Remember, death has been swallowed up in victory! O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?”
Christ is Risen! and death is defeated!
Christ is Risen! And fear is vanquished!
Christ is Risen! and suffering will not remain forever!
Christ is Risen! and the doors of paradise are opened for all who believe!
Christ is Risen! and the devil and all forces of evil will not prevail!
Back in the 2nd century, a Roman historian, Aristides, wrote to one of his friends about this new religion, Christianity, and specifically about their strange attitude toward death. He marveled, “If any righteous person among the Christians dies, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they escort the body with songs and thanksgiving as if the dead person was setting out from this place to a better place.”
The early Christians understood the resurrection and therefore rejoiced and gave thanks in the face of death. St. John Chrysostom compared the non-Christian with the Christian by saying, “When a loved one dies, the unbeliever sees a dead body, but the Christian sees a body asleep. The unbeliever says the body has gone. We Christians agree, but we remember where he has gone - to the same place that St. Peter and Paul and all the saints abide. We remember that he will rise, not with tears of dismay, but with splendor and glory in paradise!”
So today, on this glorious feast of Pascha, let us not listen to the voices of society that try to ridicule and reject the resurrection as some myth. Instead, let us rejoice in hope! Christ is Risen and He offers new life to all the world! We no longer fear anything, even death itself!
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!