Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Day the World Changed

[Death] took a body and, face to face, met God!
It took earth and encountered heaven!
It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
"O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?"
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept.
- from the Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom, obit. AD 407, read at the Easter Vigil each year.

One of the most persistent struggles for the Christian is not to accommodate death again. This means holding fast to Life as we have received it in Christ Jesus our Lord. In our world death is universally acknowledged as “natural,” and its false logic of sin, privation, anxiety, retribution, judgmentalism, &c. is all too easily imported into the Church and the lives of individual Christians. Most of the failures in Christianity reflect this tacit re-adoption of what Christ has overcome in his death and resurrection.

Easter is an affirmation of the True Life given to us in Christ, and a rejection of the lie passed off for life found in sin and death. That is why each Sunday throughout the year is a “little Easter.” Each celebration of the Lord’s resurrection is a re-affirmation of the basic principle of the Christian life. Christ is risen from the dead, and through our baptism into his Life, we are risen to this New and Eternal Life, too.

Yet, to receive this gift has proven difficult for humanity. In another sermon by St. John Chrysostom, he remarks that one of the most painful things we do is hug the chains of our own slavery closely to us. Indeed, the more Christ reaches towards us with the hand of freedom, the more we are tempted by the deception of a death-accommodating world to push his hand away. His Life is a mortal threat to our death-fixation. We have come to think our captivity to old hurts, sinful behaviors and addictions, and self-righteous judgments as the Real Thing, even when they are simply more windings of our own burial-sheet.

Eastertide is an annual 50-day celebration of Eternal Life made available now. We are bidden to put down our chains and firmly clasp Christ’s outstretched hand, for there is no compromise between Eternal Life and death. It is a season of “first fruits,” when we step into the post-Lenten world renewed in the basic message of the Gospel. For us, death must be overthrown in deed as well as word; its imprisonment of the cosmos has crumbled before Christ, but do we allow it to live a poisonous final chapter in our own inner lives?

Lent’s ascetic efforts are meant to plant seeds maturing in Eastertide, blossoming and providing fruit in the rest of our life. What have we learned from Holy Lent’s efforts? How have we cast off our chains and claimed the freedom given to us in Christ? Write those triumphs on your heart, and rejoice that by God’s grace, you are that much more fully alive. Reject the temptation to return to the bankrupt reasonings of death. Let life reign in your heart, as St. John the “Gold-Mouthed” wrote, and the resurrection will be unlocked from the pages of a book or the words of a hymn to become the single reality of our existence. Then, indeed: “Christ, is risen, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life” for us all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Holy Week, Anno Domini 2009

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 6: 10-11

The popular form of Christianity in America today says that the Gospel boils down to “good works” honoring the “common humanity” of others. This take on Christianity says that Jesus’ most important characteristic was his compassion, and thus the Church of the future will be about compassion, not doctrine or miracles.

There is much to commend in any form of Christianity putting compassionate service at the center of its life. Truly, Christ said, by serving “the least of these,” we serve him. Again and again, Our Lord models compassionate service for us and commands us to follow in his steps. But, he doesn’t stop there – not by a long shot.

Frankly put, we cannot do these good works or offer such compassion for long without fatigue. There is not enough goodwill or patience in the whole world to right all the wrongs humanity endures. That is why the Gospels do not simply record Jesus’ good works. They all end in an account of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Because Christ died and rose again to a New Life, and because we share in that death and resurrection through baptism, we also now live a New Life. No longer are we limited to our own vision, our own capacity. Together, we form a united Body with our Head, Christ Jesus. By entering into the historical fact of Christ’s death and resurrection, we enter into the fact and sustaining power of our Eternal Life in God.

This is why we put everything we have into the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Only by being deeply immersed in the full mystery of Christ – his incarnation, teachings, ascetic practices, death, and resurrection – may we expect to know the power of the Gospel in difficult times. That is what is about to be offered again in our parish: let us all partake of what is so freely given that we might once more proclaim “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”