This church service that we are now celebrating is one of the most beautiful of the entire year. It is the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil in which we move from a painful awareness of the crucifixion of Christ to a joyful participation in the resurrection of Christ. As human beings we often separate sadness from happiness, grief from joy. Yet our sadness can often grow into happiness; our grief can often grow into joy. In fact, to find the deepest happiness we often need to have known great sadness; and to find the greatest joy we often need to have experienced immense grief. So it was with the life of Jesus Christ on earth that is part of the life of the universal Christ who saves all of us.
In the epistle this evening from the sixth chapter of the book of Romans, St. Paul confronts us with the reality that if we wish to know how we can, in his phrase, “walk in newness of life” with Christ, we must first share with Christ in His crucifixion. In the Church year, Lent precedes Pascha; and to a considerable extent our personal sufferings in Lent precede and empower our personal resurrection at Pascha. The exact challenge that St. Paul issues to us tonight is very clear in this reading from the book of Romans: “Do you not know,” wrote St. Paul, “that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus have been baptised into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him [that is, with Christ] in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be [united with Him] in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.”
Now, as we enter into the joyful experience of Pascha, what does it mean to be “freed from sin”? The great fourth century theologian and pastor, St. John Chrysostom, preaching on Romans 6, offered a very clear answer: “Being dead to sin means not obeying it any more. Baptism has made us dead to sin once and for all, but we must strive to maintain this state of affairs, so that however many commands sin may give us, we no longer obey it but remain unmoved by it, as a corpse.” So let us each remember this Lent and Pascha as a time when sin became a corpse in each of our lives—a dead body that no longer has any impact on our present or our future.
It would be great if sin could really become a corpse in each of our lives, but that is quite difficult, certainly for me. Much of the challenge is to sustain what is good in our lives. In the seventh chorus of “Choruses from the Rock”, the poet T. S. Eliot wrote: “In the beginning GOD created the world. Waste and void. Waste and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep/And when there were men, in their various ways, they struggled in torment towards GOD/Blindly and vainly, for man is a vain thing, and man without GOD is a seed upon the wind: driven this way and that, and finding no place of lodgement and germination. They followed the light and the shadow, and the light led them forward to light and the shadow led them to darkness. . . .”
Now, we all live parts of our lives in light and in shadow. However, with a belief in Christ, we are no longer “a seed upon the wind” without a home and the capacity to grow as human beings. With a belief in Christ, we can be confident of victory in our own personal and private battles against sin by going to confession and by remembering the last verse of St. Matthew’s Gospel that has just been read, when the resurrected Christ told the apostles in Galilee: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Preaching on this passage, St. John Chrysostom pointed out, and I quote, that Christ “promised to be not only with these disciples but also with all who would subsequently believe after them. Jesus speaks, “preached St. John Chrysostom, “to all believers as if to one body. Do not speak to me, he says, of the difficulties you will face, for ‘I am with you’. . .”
More than fifteen hundred years later, in the eighth of the Choruses from ‘The Rock’, T. S. Eliot, like St. John Chrysostom, expressed a confidence in the capacity of human beings to believe in Christ and to experience the impact of Christ on our lives. Eliot wrote:
O Father we welcome your words,
And we will take heart for the future,
Remembering the past. . . .
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they [have] never assume[d] it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O GOD, help us (wrote Eliot).
And God—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—does indeed help us to pick up the Cross, to carry it and to lay it down in the glory of the Resurrection. Pascha is the proof both of the victory of Christ over sin and of our sharing in that victory. I conclude with the words of St. Paul from today’s epistle: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn