Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen! The joy that we experience today is a joy that the Lord intends will continue throughout our lives on earth. St Paul stated his situation and our situation in First Corinthians, chapter 15, when he wrote: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your sting?” St Paul continued by asking and answering the question: What is the sting of death? He wrote: “Now death’s sting is sin, and sin’s power is the Law. But thanks to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, ever abounding in the Lord’s work, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
When St Paul asked that question, “O death where is your sting?” he was citing roughly the words of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 25, verse 8, of the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Death prevailed and swallowed them, but God has taken away every tear from every face … for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Then it will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God, in whom we hoped and rejoiced exceedingly; and we were glad in our salvation.’”
Why are we so glad today? What exactly is our salvation? We rejoice because of the unity of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in the person of Jesus Christ. We rejoice that because Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected, any pain, any suffering, in our lives can become a victory. How? Because we trust that God is in charge of our lives and will guide us closer and closer to Him throughout our lives on earth.
St Athanasius, the fourth century Bishop of Alexandria preached that: “By nature [we are] afraid of death and of the dissolution [that is, the breaking up] of the body. But there is this most startling fact,” [those] who have put on the faith of the cross despise even [death of which they are] naturally fearful and for Christ’s sake are not afraid of death.”
I had an interesting conversation two weeks ago with a Christian who was not afraid of death. She knew that I was an Orthodox priest; and I knew that after several strokes she had serious heart problems. I asked her, “How is your health?” She replied immediately, very alert, with a big smile: “I was in hospital; and I had a heart attack!” I said, “Well, if you’re going to have a heart attack, hospital is certainly the place to be.” She agreed; and then she told me what had happened: “I remember all the nurses and doctors hurrying around me with concern,” she said; “and then everything went black; and suddenly I was floating away. It was such a strange experience.” I reached out and touched her on the shoulder. She smiled again and said, “Was that a blessing?” I nodded, “Yes.” My friend was aware of an out-of-body experience in which her body had separated from her soul—unusual but not unknown both to those close to death and to many saints, whose souls travel to different places than their bodies, both before and after their deaths on earth.
It is important to note that when St Athanasius was preaching about why we should not be afraid of death, his sermon was entitled, “On the Incarnation.” In other words, because Christ came down to earth from heaven and became a human being, He became a model for each of us that we as human beings can participate in His divine nature. We can seek not to sin, which is the sting of death, and instead bring the joy of Christ to others, because Christ came to earth not only to save each of us, to bring salvation to each of us, but to save every human being.
In an Easter Sermon, chapter 233, verse 4, St Augustine preached: “Where is death?” he asked. “Seek it in Christ,” he replied, “for it exists no longer. It did exist, and now death is dead. O Life, O Death of death! Be of good heart, death will die in us also. What has taken place in our Head [who is Christ Himself] will also take place in [each of us,] His members. Death will die in us also. But when? At the end of the world, at the resurrection of the dead…. These words are given,” preached St Augustine, “to those who triumph, that you may have something to think about [now], something to sing about in your heart, something to hope for in your heart, something to seek with faith and good works.”
Those words from St Augustine are certainly true. Death is finally defeated in each of us at the resurrection of the dead. But notice that St Augustine is also aware that we conquer death every day that we choose not to sin, because we then join ourselves in faith to Christ through our prayer and service to others.
The Greek word Pascha comes from the Hebrew word for Passover which is Pesach, meaning “He passed over.” A note in The Orthodox Study Bible on Exodus 12 explains that the first Passover of the Hebrews in Egypt was called Passover because the angel of death “passed over the homes of the Hebrews, sparing them from the death that came to the first-born in Egypt and because the Hebrews passed over the Red Sea as if it were dry land. Passover,” concludes that note in The Orthodox Study Bible, “celebrates God’s steadfast love and devotion to His people and their freedom in Him” [end of quote]. This Pascha, God still offers to each of us His “steadfast love and devotion … and [our] freedom [to be with] Him.”
I began this Paschal Sermon with the words of St Paul in the Book of First Corinthians about how God gives us “victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I can now close with the words of St Paul from First Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 7 and 8: “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast.”
Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!