Fr. Steven Kostoff, Rector of Christ the Saviour/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, at the Women's Retreat of the Midwest Antiochian Women's Association held at the monastery in May of 2008
May 9, 2008 Length: 1:14:11
Fr. Steven Kostoff: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Christ is risen! [Truly he is risen!]
I deeply appreciate the invitation today to speak to your group. I think whenever we have any kind of a cross-jurisdictional event—I’m an OCA priest addressing an Antiochian women’s group—I think it’s always fruitful for the Church, brings us together a little bit better. We need more unity in Orthodoxy in America, and it’s a theme we’re always kind of struggling with, so it’s just good to be here and be able to speak today.
As Bobby said, we have [had] some wonderful visits down to Guatemala together. At the end of the day, I want to invite you to my parish for a retreat with Mother Ivonne in September, so someone remind me of that toward the end of the day.
Just by way of a few introductory remarks, building on the little of what I said in the sanctuary during the Liturgy, Mother Gabriella just shared with you somehow—I don’t mean this critically or negatively; it’s just an observation—somehow we missed Bright Week. We somehow missed Bright Week in the church. I think we’re all worn out. We’re exhausted. I call Bright Week “Recovery Week,” and I think we’re kind of just recovering physically. We put so much intensity into Holy Week, and we’re fasting and we’re praying and we’re following the Lord on the way to the Cross. When Pascha comes, there’s almost an inevitable kind of a let-down. We’re trying to get back to our so-called normal way of life, and sometimes it’s just hard to adjust, which is good, because reality is what we experience in the Church.
Sometimes we say to ourselves, “We’re getting back to normal life or real life after Holy Week and Pascha.” Real life is in the Church. There we experience Christ, who is the truth itself. Then we go back into the world and take that with us, hopefully, something of the risen Christ, as we go back—back to our work or school or back to whatever acquaintances we might have. It’s always the Church that gives us the real glimpse of life and the real experience and participation in divine grace, no more than in Holy Week and Pascha.
Again, somehow we missed Bright Week in the process. As Mother Gabriella said, Bright Week is treated like one day, so we serve the exact identical matins, vespers, and Liturgy from Monday through Saturday of Bright Week. The only thing that changes are the scriptural readings—the epistle and the gospel. Again, it gives us a sense of the one bright day of the kingdom of heaven. As I was preparing here, I thought to myself, “Even though it’s not described in the Scriptures, or just kind of hinted at, the disciples had a Bright Week.” There was an original Bright Week, just as there was an original Holy Week. Holy Week, it’s much more… There’s a full narrative in the gospel for Holy Week. We can follow Christ. We can determine Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, to Great and Holy Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha Sunday.
But on that Pascha Sunday, our Lord revealed himself to his disciples. The risen Lord was in their midst. He gave them his peace. He gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, according to the gospel of St. John. So even though we don’t have a description, the disciples had a Bright Week. There was that first week after that first glorious paschal morning that they could just rejoice that the Lord had been raised from the dead. In fact, in the one gospel, we have that wonderful statement, “They disbelieved out of joy.” They were so overwhelmed by what they had encountered, totally unanticipated, even though Christ had prophesied it, but they disbelieved because of joy; they were overwhelmed. So there was a Bright Week for the disciples.
They had a horrible Holy Week, in a certain way. And Holy Week culminated with [when] they saw their Lord, their Master, crucified on the cross. Everything seemed to be over. The movement was dead, as Jesus died on the cross and he was buried. So we have a hard time comprehending their experience of seeing the risen Christ and going through that first week aware of his resurrection, and we’ll hear about what happens eight days later at tomorrow’s Liturgy. So we hear about the eight days later, so-called Thomas Sunday, when Thomas will come and transform from unbelief to belief.
Just as we follow the gospels in having a Holy Week, we follow the disciples hopefully in having a Bright Week. In the early Church, everything began with Pascha. It didn’t end with Pascha. Again, for us, sometimes it’s like everything ends with Pascha because we somehow made it through those hard forty days and Holy Week. And then, like, “Well, what next?” Well, what next is life in the resurrected Christ. Again, this is kind of an observation.
In my parish I used to have… I used to schedule two or three Liturgies a week during Bright Week and a vespers every evening, and I just had to stop doing that. I don’t mean that critically, but my parishioners, who are very faithful, very loyal, very pious, who are always enriching Holy Week, but it’s just time, I guess, to recover a bit, but we have to still try and struggle with that sense of Bright Week and the resurrection joy that hopefully we receive.
I want to kind of begin here with this wonderful statement, sentence, from St. John Maximovitch, who was a 20th-century Russian Orthodox bishop. He died in San Francisco. His relics are venerated there to this day. Very simply, St. John said, “Paschal joy is a foretaste of eternal joy in the approaching kingdom of Christ.” It’s a very, very wonderful, succinct statement of what Pascha is, I believe. Now, the word “Pascha” means, of course, “passover” or “passage,” so whenever we hear about Pascha it never implies a kind of static event; it implies a dynamic process.
So this paschal joy… Well, Paschal joy comes through the Cross. There’s a beautiful phrase in one of our prayers that we sing all during Bright Week: “Through the Cross, joy has come into the world. Through the Cross, joy has come into the world.” There’s a passage, a transformation, that brings us to the Paschal joy. Again, you know, we have to be careful. The sorrow, the sobriety, the solemnity, the sadness of Holy and Great Friday doesn’t disappear to be replaced by the joy of Pascha Sunday. It is all transformed. It doesn’t just kind of magically disappear; it’s transformed. There’s a whole process of transformation.
What is integral to that process of transformation is Holy and Great Saturday. In Holy and Great Saturday, Christ is resting in the tomb, with a dynamic rest in which he is overcoming death. We’ll come to that in more detail a little bit later. So that’s a sense of a transformation, so whenever we hear the word “Pascha,” it always means passage, passover, a transformation. So Paschal joy, again, is a foretaste of eternal joy in the approaching kingdom of Christ.
Jesus transformed what the world perceives as utter defeat and suffering, which means his death on the Cross. There’s nothing more wretched or horrible than death on the cross. Scholars tell us that. They give us the details of how someone dies on the cross, the types of people who were crucified: criminals, rebels, the kind of marginalized people of society. Christ transformed that. He fully suffered, he bore the cross with all of its intensity and all of its pain, but he transformed that. So that’s what brings us to this… That is the source of this Paschal joy, if you like.
I remember Fr. Alexander Schmemann at the seminary. He always liked quoting Frederich Nietzsche who was that kind of famous German atheistic philosopher of the 19th century. I mean, “like” meaning he quoted him; can’t say he liked him, but that’s another issue. Nietzsche said, “I see no joy in Christians.” Fr. Schmemann used that as a kind of reproachful statement of how maybe we don’t have that joy.
So we have a foretaste of that eternal joy, because we’re awaiting the kingdom of God which Christ came to bring us in his death and resurrection. Now, that is what we experience in the Liturgy. Probably the experience par excellence in this world for us is in the Liturgy where we really have a foretaste of eternal joy. The Liturgy is our experience of the kingdom of God which is here now but which is yet to come in all of its fullness. So the kingdom is already here. The kingdom is not completely here, but we’re taken up into that process of anticipation when we are in the Liturgy.
There’s a beautiful hymn that we chant every Liturgy and especially highlighted during Pascha:
O Christ, great and most holy Pascha! O wisdom, Word, and Power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of thee in the neverending day of thy kingdom.
So we are partaking of Christ in the Liturgy when we receive the Eucharist, but we pray that that’s even more, even perfected to a greater degree in the neverending day of his kingdom. So every Liturgy, in a sense, is a foretaste of the kingdom of God, and again that’s the source of our rejoicing, and that’s only made possible because of the resurrection of Christ.
There’s a power to the resurrection. Again, maybe we might miss this a little bit. There’s a power… God’s power breaks into the world in and through the risen Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. There’s a wonderful power there. We chant the words over and over. Sometimes we can maybe take that for granted and miss that. I just want to read just a short little anecdote here from St. John Maximovitch. He’s known as a miracle-worker. There’s a beautiful little story here that really struck me when I first read it, and I try and share it every Pascha. It’s from a little booklet on St. John the Wonder-worker. It reads as follows:
The gifts of the saint for working wonders and foresight were very well known in Shanghai. (He was in Shanghai, China, after he was expelled from Russia.) One night during Bright Week, he went to the Jewish hospital in order to visit the Orthodox patients there. When he passed one room, he stopped in front of a screen behind which there was the bed of an elderly Jewish woman who was on the verge of death. Her family members were there awaiting her demise.
The saint lifted his cross over the screen and exclaimed loudly, “Christ is risen!” and at the same moment, the woman, who was at death’s door, came to and asked for water. The medical personnel remained astonished by the change in the woman, who had almost died a few moments previously. The woman recovered and left the hospital. Such incidents are innumerable.
That’s a wonderful hope of Pascha event. The power of Pascha shining through the life of this saint. Here a Jewish woman in the hospital, and he raises her up with the power of the resurrected Christ, so we have to keep in [mind and] remember that power of the resurrection also.
So the Resurrection permeates every aspect of the Church’s life. There’s nothing in the life of the Church that is somehow not connected, transformed by, filled with the power and the glory of the Resurrection. For the simple fact there would be no Church without the Resurrection of Christ. Everything depends upon the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. It’s the very cornerstone, it’s the very heart, it’s the very foundation of our faith to this day. We all know the words of St. Paul which reverberate very loudly today: “If Christ is not raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” We very strongly proclaim the risen Christ. We’ll talk about it in a little more detail in a few moments.
In today’s world… And again my intention here is not to be critical or polemical; I’m just making an observation and keeping us alert to what we’re facing. In today’s world, you find Christian scholars, students of the Bible, who want their Christianity without a risen Christ. They write about Jesus, write about his teaching. They’ll examine the gospels, they’ll dissect them, they will analyze them, they will scrutinize them, and they come to some kind of strange conclusion that we don’t have to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead in order to be a Christian. You’ll find that out there today.
I was talking to Joy—Joy and I drove up together from Cincinnati. Put on PBS or something. There’s a special on Christianity or the early Church. They’ll talk about everything but the Resurrection of Christ if not openly deny it or reject it or tell us how it’s not that important or we don’t really know what happened and all that kind of stuff. So that’s out there today. So we don’t know that Jesus. We don’t know the Jesus who’s not raised from the dead. We don’t know that Christ. That’s a different faith. That’s a different faith and a different Jesus. Again, my point is not to be just critical, but to be alert and vigilant to [the fact that] we’re in a certain environment today: our kind of pluralism or kind of anything-goes and our relativism.
The Christ we know is the Christ who was raised bodily from the dead. “For thou art our God. We know no other than thee. We call on thy name.” That’s also from the hymn that we sang all during Bright Week.
I teach at Xavier University, which is a Roman Catholic Jesuit school. There are professors in the theology department who openly reject the resurrection of Christ. They’re Roman Catholic. They’re Roman Catholics and they openly teach their students that Jesus did not rise from the dead. That’s something from the past, that’s mythic, that’s a metaphor, something like that. This is a Roman Catholic university; it’s not a secular university. So I’m thinking to myself, “Gosh, these parents are sending their kids to that university, spending tens of thousands of dollars, and their kids are being deChristianized by their faculty!” Maybe some of you send your kids in college. Some are in the process: some are going to send your kids to college. That always kind of sticks with me: you spend tens of thousands of dollars taking the chance your child will be deChristianized in the process!
I talk to these professors. We’ve had our share of lively discussions. In my class—I teach a course on the Orthodox Church—I spend a lot of time on the Resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, the virginal conception of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, the Ascension of Christ. I think they enjoy it. If I may say so, I think they kind of enjoy to hear something this traditional again. And I have these young people tell me, “I enjoyed your class. I learned about my faith better”—and they’re not Orthodox. [Audience laughter] I’m not blowing my trumpet at all. This is just what happens in the process of teaching, and I enjoy that thoroughly. These students, they respond to that. They get confused. So I’m not here to spend a lot of time on that, but that’s the climate we’re in a little bit. So we’re very certain about the resurrected Christ.
As I said, all aspects of the Church’s life are permeated with the Resurrection of Christ, beginning with the Scriptures. The Scriptures flow out of the Church. The Scriptures did not fall down from heaven. They’re not from outside of the Church. They come from within the Church. The Scriptures come from the living experience of the Christians who have met and encountered the risen Lord. The Scriptures are the fruit of the faith and that encounter. The scriptural writers are inspired to hand down that faith to us in a scriptural form, so we always begin with the Scriptures. The Scriptures are central to the Church.
Anyways, so probably the first book of the New Testament, chronologically—not the gospels of course: first the epistles of the Apostle Paul and of the other Apostles; the gospels come a little bit later—but I believe the first book of the New Testament is St. Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians. In I Thessalonians 1:10, St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that
You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead. Jesus will deliver us from the wrath to come.
That’s probably the first written witness to the Resurrection of Christ. In Romans 4:24-25, speaking about righteousness here, the righteousness that we receive from God:
It (meaning righteousness) will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Whenever you read, rarely does St. Paul talk about the Cross or the death of Christ apart from his Resurrection. They’re always held together very closely. It’s like one unitive kind of Paschal event, if you like: death-and-resurrection. I wanted to make that point from earlier, that transformative element there. He talks about it here. I think in Romans 10, that’s the part where he says
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that he raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.
That was probably an early baptismal confession. You confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, hopefully believing in your heart that God has raised him from the dead. That is our process, that is our path to salvation.
Probably, in my opinion, maybe the key text of St. Paul about the Resurrection comes in I Corinthians 15. The entire chapter is an incredible chapter about resurrection, which we’ll come to a little bit later also, including the resurrection of the dead. But here’s what St. Paul says in I Corinthians 15.
That was a rough parish, Corinth, if you read about Corinth. I mean, our parishes are like paradise compared to Corinth. There’s no golden age. We like to think of a golden age. Corinth was just filled with problems: sexual immorality, prostitution. There was incest in Corinth. St. Paul had to deal with these things pastorally.
I think as Fr. Hopko has said, “Pilate got into the Creed the way that Corinth got into the Bible.” [Audience laughter] So if you can figure that one out a little bit… I think that’s how he put it. That’s how Corinth got into the Bible. In the ancient world, when people said “to Corinthianize,” [it] meant to lead a really wild kind of debauched life. There’s even a term in the ancient world, to Corinthianize.
So here St. Paul comes to this community, and he forms a Christian community. People begin to believe, they respond to the Gospel, they had difficulties understanding. Paul preached, he baptized a few, and then he left. He left the community in the hands of some other leaders, and they struggled with trying to form a real community. There was disunity, there were people who were followers of Cephas, people who were followers of Apollo, people who were followers of Paul: even a lack of unity there. So Paul had to really struggle. Those are two of the greatest epistles of the New Testament, just telling us… Paul struggled to develop a pastoral theology in the process of trying to teach the Corinthians as patiently as possible, although at some times he lost his patience. If you read his epistles carefully, that fiery personality comes out at times. He gets angry with the Corinthians.
So this whole [epistle to the] Corinthians, he’s going after theme after theme after theme, including the incest and including visiting prostitutes, excuse me, suing people in court, what kind of foods one can eat, even the sexuality between husband and wife. He’s going through all these themes, kind of climaxing with I Corinthians 15, in this beautiful text on the Resurrection, 58 verses long or whatever. So there was a misunderstanding in Corinth about the Resurrection. I’ll pick up that theme in our second half; as for now, I just want to read this very key passage. In I Corinthians 15:3-8, it almost reads like a short credal summary. It almost feels like it’s this credal statement embedded in those opening verses of I Corinthians 15. St. Paul:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
Those are the famous “oti” clauses. “Oti” is the Greek word for “that”: that, that, that, and that. Jesus: he died, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared to Cephas and to many. It’s a very powerful witness by the Apostle Paul. He continues.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Falling asleep is a euphemism for death now within our Christian faith. Falling asleep implies being reawakened from sleep. When Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter: “Oh, she’s only sleeping.” And they all said, “Aw, what does he know? The girl’s dead.” Jesus: “She’s only sleeping”—although she was dead, but that was Jesus speaking about her reawakening: he will raise her up from death, of course.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
St. Paul calls himself “one untimely born,” because he first he persecuted the Church of God. He was Saul, then he became Paul, and it was the risen Christ who appeared to him on the road to Damascus that transformed him into Paul. Then he went and was baptized by Ananias. The Lord told him, “You will go preach to the Gentiles, and it’s not going to be a picnic,” is what he told him. “You’re going to suffer and carry your cross when you preach to the Gentiles. But that’s a wonderful passage there, those strong that clauses, you see, very affirmative.
But what’s interesting also here is almost a technical vocabulary. St. Paul speaks about “I delivered to you what I received.” The basis of those words is the Greek word for our tradition, our word “tradition”: paradosis. “Paradosis” is the Greek word for tradition. These are the verbal forms. “I delivered what I received.” Literally—this is very interesting—literally, the Apostle is saying, “I have traditioned to you what was traditioned to me.” So “tradition” means that which is handed down or handed over. St. Paul had something traditioned to him, even though he saw the risen Christ for himself. That’s, of course, the key event of his transformation. Nevertheless, he still conferred with Peter and James and the other apostles when he went to Jerusalem. He must have heard a great deal more from them. As someone said, they didn’t talk about the weather. When St. Paul met the apostles in Jerusalem, obviously they talked about Christ. He learned more. Something was delivered to him. What is his role now? He has to deliver it as he received it to the Corinthians. This is the faith: that Christ died, was buried, was raised, and that he appeared unto many.
In a sense, as Orthodox Christians, this truth is traditioned to us generation after generation after generation. We’re simply the contemporary generation that has received this tradition. It’s been delivered and received from apostolic times. I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It’s not just apostolic historically; it’s apostolic because we have the same faith as the apostles. We’ve received this tradition. We have to live out what we have received. We have to be living icons of this holy tradition. We’re handing it down to the next generation. That can be your children, your grandchildren, your godchildren, and whomever you’re teaching. So we’re responsible for this living tradition. It’s been handed down to us. We can join Tevya with that song, “Tradition,” you know? Little different faith, but we can join him in the song. I won’t sing that, by the way; I’ll spare you that. [Audience laughter]
One way of maybe putting that is: we can either live off the tradition or we can live the tradition. You feel the distinction there? To live off the tradition is semi-parasitical, excuse me. We can kind of go through the motions and it’s ethnic or it’s social or whatever; that’s living off the tradition. We’re consuming it, but not really bearing fruit. Or else we can live the tradition. We can live as those who believe in the Resurrection of Christ and show it in our lives, and that’s going to be more the focus of our second talk today.
We’re talking about the Resurrection of Christ. Let me just say a few things that I’m assuming are obvious or we know this, but that’s the way we review things together, kind of reinforce what we believe together. The Resurrection of Christ is a bodily resurrection. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead. It’s not symbolic, it’s not metaphorical, it’s not poetic, it’s not the immortality of the soul; he was bodily raised from the dead. St. Paul uses a particular Greek word, “ōphthē,” which can be translated as “appeared” or even “he showed himself,” but the meaning of the word is that it captures a very concrete, objective reality. It’s a very concrete, objective reality, ōphthē, that he uses for the Lord’s resurrection. So he appeared to men: it is a bodily resurrection.
Now we have two ways of looking at this resurrection in the Church. One I would call historical, and the other I would call theological. Historically, we don’t quite have the icon, but Mother found this at least. Here are the myrrh-bearing women with Joseph of Arimathea and, of course, Nicodemus. The myrrh-bearing women. The fuller icon is of the myrrh-bearing women at the tomb of Christ. In the icon, the tomb is always empty, and an angel is in the tomb declaring the Resurrection to the myrrh-bearing women. That is what I would call the historical witness to the Resurrection.
The other icon is the descent of Christ into Hades. We’ll come to that in a moment. No human being saw the Resurrection. There are no eye-witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ. Too awesome, too mysterious, too overwhelming. There are no human eye-witnesses to the Resurrection. The later icon of Christ coming out of the tomb with a flag or with a banner, that’s not really an authentic icon. It’s a later icon. So these are the two canonical icons of the Resurrection. This historical one: it always depicts the empty tomb, sometimes the grave clothes that are lying there in accordance with St. John’s gospel.
There’s an angel at the tomb. An angel is a messenger. “Angelos” means “messenger.” Angels always bring to us crucial messages from God, or revelation. In a sense, the angel is the first evangelist of the Resurrection. An angel proclaims the Resurrection before a human being proclaims the Resurrection. God reveals it to us, we receive it, then we proclaim it.
There’s Mary Magdalene and other myrrh-bearing women who have come to the tomb. There’s something very profoundly, even poignantly human here, because the myrrh-bearing women never give up on Christ. It’s a very… Is that more of a feminine characteristic? Could be. The myrrh-bearing women never give up on Christ. The disciples are scattered, they’re in despair, they’re even frightened, but the myrrh-bearing women continued to minister to the Lord by coming to the tomb. They’re not even sure how they’ll even have access to the tomb, but there’s some kind of almost prophetic faith about them, or kind of trust. So they come to the tomb to minister to the Lord and to mourn there.
An angel will tell them—it’s in Mark’s gospel very beautifully—“You seek Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here. He is risen. See the place where he lay. Go and tell his disciples he will appear to them in Galilee.” That’s the first glorious proclamation of the Resurrection. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here.” The point I’m trying to make is the Jesus who was crucified is the Jesus who was raised.
Again, I’m not trying to take you down an obscure lane here, but modern scholars like to play around with the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. They kind of separate them somehow, but the Jesus who was crucified, that is the Jesus who was raised. That’s why the tomb is empty. For no other reason. In other words, there is a real… There’s a continuity between Christ before and after his Resurrection, so to speak. There’s a continuity. It’s the same person who is now being raised up, and we get that very strongly from St. Mark’s wonderful account, which is probably the first gospel account that we find there.
At the same time, there’s a real discontinuity. Even though it’s the same Jesus of Nazareth who is raised bodily from the dead, there’s a transformation, a transfiguration. He has the spiritual body that St. Paul talks about in I Corinthians 15—soma pnevmatikon—that spiritual body of the resurrection. The doors are shut, Jesus appears. “Peace be unto you.” He disappears. There’s something mysterious here.
When you read the gospel accounts, the gospel accounts when you first read them can almost sound almost contradictory. There’s Jerusalem, there’s Galilee, there’s by the Sea of Tiberias, these different places. Jesus kind of comes and goes, so to speak. He’s no longer restricted and bound by time and space as in his incarnational life leading up to his cross and resurrection. There’s a sense of transformation. That’s why, perhaps, sometimes they don’t even recognize him initially. He reveals himself to them. It even says he appeared in another form, according to St. Mark’s gospel.
So this is the risen Christ. The disciples didn’t recognize him on the road to Emmaus. When did they recognize him? In the breaking of the bread. That’s very, very revealing. They recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. It anticipates the Eucharist, clearly, that recognition there, you see? I love that they say, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us?” It’s a beautiful phrase. They weren’t sure it was Jesus. They realized it later, but all the time their hearts were burning within. This talking to him, this Stranger on the road to Emmaus, this was the risen Christ. Then they were overwhelmed and they go back and they hear that Simon has seen the Lord. The Lord has appeared to Simon as we hear later in Luke’s gospel, chapter 24.
There’s continuity and discontinuity in the risen Christ. This is what is really meant by resurrection. Resurrection means, implies, signifies the one resurrected will never die again. Jesus is now raised; he moves beyond the reality of death. It’s important because, in the gospels, Jesus raises certain people to life. He raises the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue elder. He raises the son of the widow of Nain. Very touching: that was her only child; he gives him back to her. He raises Lazarus, the four-day dead. They were not resurrected like Jesus was. If you like, they were resuscitated to earthly existence yet again. And, frankly, they died again, to then reap their reward in the kingdom of heaven. Those are resuscitations or bringing back to life in this world; Jesus is resurrected, showing us the life of the age to come, and we’ll come to that also later, I believe, in our second talk.
So on the historical level, looking at this one icon, there are basically three essential components. There’s the empty tomb. An empty tomb does not yet tell us that Jesus has been raised. There are other possibilities. Even Mary Magdalene thought that somebody took the body of Jesus. She says that openly in St. John’s gospel. There’s the empty tomb. The empty tomb is revealed for what it really is once Jesus appears to his disciples. This is why the tomb is empty: Jesus has been raised. Then he appears to them. Those appearances transform the disciples, and they will eventually become the apostles. You see, they’re transformed by those appearances. They were dispirited, they were defeated, they were in despair, they were frightened.
Now they’re transformed; now they begin to preach the Resurrection. You cannot convincingly explain why those particular men or the women apostles began to preach the risen Christ outside of the Resurrection. There’s no really plausible explanation. All those rationalizations, they break down when you look at them very carefully. Something miraculous happened to transform those people into disciples and apostles. It was the Resurrection of Christ.
When I argue with some of these folks, as I mentioned, at the university or whatever, you cannot describe or explain the emergence of the Christian faith outside the Resurrection. It makes no sense at all. You have a crucified Messiah, a crucified and dead Jesus, he’s buried, it’s all over, the movement is completed, it’s dead. Only the Resurrection gives any plausibility to now the teaching of the apostles and going out on the road and willing to die for it. You don’t die for something you don’t believe in or you don’t think it’s real, so all those components go together: the empty tomb, the appearances, and the transformation of the apostles.
Trying to get into my watch here… What time do we have? Two o’clock, okay. A few more comments, then some questions.
The other icon, it’s called the Anastasis here, but it’s also called the Descent into Hell or the Descent into Hades. The actual word is the Hebrew word “Sheol,” the realm of the dead, “Ada” or “Adē” in Greek. We say “hell,” but technically more [correct to say] “Sheol” or “Hades.” Christ descending into Hades. This is a theological icon. Obviously, this is not witnessed. It tells us the theological truth of what happens in the Resurrection of Christ, that when Jesus dies a truly human death—he assumed our human nature—he enters into the realm of death.
The love of God is so powerful, he not only becomes incarnate to live among us, he will die and experience our experience of death. So God will die on our behalf in the Person of the incarnate Christ. This is a very powerful theology, because the Word of God assumed our human nature, soul and body. That human nature experienced death when Jesus hanged on the Cross and died. His body and soul were separated as our body and soul are separated at death, so he tasted death on our behalf. That’s the power of the love of God. He descends into death itself; he doesn’t hold back. He goes searching for Adam in that abyss of death which is unnatural. It’s not according to God’s plan that we die. Why did Jesus weep at Lazarus’s tomb? He wept because he was sad for the fate of humankind experiencing death, and—frankly, it’s in the gospel—rotting in the tomb. “O Lord, it’s four days decomposed. He already smells. Don’t bother with that.” See, Jesus wept over that. It overwhelmed him, so to speak. But then he brought Lazarus back. This is about Christ entering into death itself on our behalf. So we teach that his… This is what we call the descent of the Word of God, katavasis in the Greek, his descent, his self-emptying, his kenosis as St. Paul talked about in Corinthians 2, his self-emptying, his kenosis.
And Jesus preached to the spirits who were imprisoned there. It’s a very powerful text in I Peter.
For Christ also died for our sins, once for all. The righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark.
So Jesus preached even to the sinners who were bound in Hades, this realm of death. I love that first on Holy Friday evening, the matins of Holy Saturday, the first stasis: “In the tomb they laid thee…” It’s that beautiful, in Byzantine chant at night: “In the tomb they laid thee…” Christ laid in the tomb, but it was an active rest in the tomb. He enters death itself.
His holy soul went into the realm of death. His soul remained united to the Word of God, so Jesus enters death as the Conqueror, as the Victor. He’s never the Victim. In our theology, he’s never the Victim, he’s always the Victor, even on the Cross. St. John Chrysostom said, “I called him King because I saw him crucified.” Even his death is a resurrecting death; it’s a life-giving death. And he’ll go into death and bring up… It’s a powerful icon because Jesus is grabbing Adam and Eve who here probably represent all of humanity. It’s like he’s pulling them up, you see? He’s jerking them up out of the realm of death, and some of the Old Testament righteous are here behind them.
As I was studying this more, the Church Fathers tell us, he preached to every human soul in death, not just the righteous, because people ask the question, “What about the people who lived before Christ? Are they all lost, all those untold, countless numbers of people? They had the bad fortune of living before Christ and cannot be saved?” Not at all. Jesus preached to them when he entered into the realm of death. They were given the opportunity to abide and hear his word and to come out, so to speak, enter the kingdom of heaven. So that gives us hope for all the generations, all the people, see? He went into Sheol and brought them out.
There’s a beautiful hymn that the priest always chants when he’s censing the altar table before the Liturgy.
In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul, in paradise with the thief, on the throne with the Father with the Holy Spirit was thou, O Christ, filling all things.
There is nowhere that Christ was not. He was in a body; he was in the tomb with the body. He was in hell with his soul. He was in paradise with the thief. He was on the throne with the Father and the Spirit. There is nowhere that Christ is not. When he’s in hell, he’s still in heaven. That’s kind of hard to grasp. He’s still the eternal Word of God, but his body is united to the Word in the tomb, which is why it cannot see corruption. His soul is united to the Word in Hades while he’s resurrecting all the fallen by his power. This is where we have those beautiful… We kind of personify death: Death is trembling, death is quaking, death is embittered.
I just wrote a meditation to my parish. The word “bitter” is out there now in the political world. Someone made the mistake of using the word “bitter” politically recently. I’m not going into the politics here; I have no comment there, but he got himself in a lot of trouble, right? He used the word “bitter,” and he had to explain himself away and all this, but in the Paschal homily translation that we use, it says, “Hell was embittered.” Over and over: “It was embittered; it tasted God. It was embittered because it met the Word of God.” So Hell was really embittered. We can use the word strongly and affirmatively in that sense.
The souls bound in the chains of Hell, O Christ, sing thy compassion without measure, pressed onward to the light with joyful steps praising the eternal Pascha.
So all are potentially saved through the death and resurrection of Christ, his descent into the realm of death, his bringing up of Adam and Eve as representing all, at least as the Victor of death, never the Victim. That’s a later Protestant theology about Christ the Victim; he is always the Victor.
Well, I’ve been a little talked out. I’m hoping that’s the first presentation, the first half. I enjoy questions and answers more than anything. That’s kind of my favorite time of the retreat, so I’m hoping there’s a question or two. Even if not, sometimes the point of giving you the chance to ask questions, I might not have said things you want to hear about, and I’d like to…
Q1: Where did we, in Orthodoxy, get our news of Christ’s descent into Hell and saving [them]?
Fr. Steven: Well, probably that text from I Peter is the key text. It’s I Peter 3:18-20. He preached to the spirits in prison. I just read a long, I thought excellent, article about this, by Bishop Hilarion, a Russian bishop. He shows how Church Fathers from Clement of Alexandria through St. Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, they all basically taught that, and they’re basing themselves, I think, on that text in Peter.
Also, there are… And here, this is a tricky question, because sometimes we do use material found in so-called apocryphal gospels. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus has a long section on the descent into Hades that’s entered into our ecclesial consciousness as a fine image of what is meant by the death of Christ. So it goes back to very early centuries, including even I Peter.
I just discovered, if Bishop Hilarion is correct, he really stressed how the Fathers meant he came to save everyone, not just the righteous of the Old Testament: the heathen, anyone who could somehow hear his voice and recognize him and be saved. So there’s no predestination, limited salvation here. It’s a very powerful teaching, but that icon shows it to us.
Q2: Father, probably because of the icons this year during Holy Week, I especially started to think about Christ going into Hell, and we know that because of the icons, too, and the teachings, we know that he pulled up Adam and Eve and so on. What do we know about who didn’t go with him? I know, free will, even in Hell, but it’s hard to believe that there would be any free will left in Hell.
Fr. Steven: Well, again, from what I understand, it’s a very powerful theological subject. As I understand, we don’t have any precise knowledge of that. There’s a kind of a humble silence about who didn’t follow Christ. I mean, Jesus talked about the son of perdition, and better that he not be born. That’s… I leave that up to God, but that’s what he did say about even Judas. So according to… Like I said, I just read this long article by Bishop Hilarion about the descent into Hades, and there’s a kind of silence about who didn’t follow him.
Free will’s kind of a tricky thing, because a heart can be really hardened, too. It’s hard to believe that, but…
Q2: All of that suffering, though? What do you make of that?
Fr. Steven: I’m not trying to argue that I’m glad there’s people remaining there, but at the same time, we’re very cautious about teaching a kind of universal salvation also. The devil stayed there, if you like. The devil is bound. This icon shows the devil: he’s bound here. The doors are being knocked down, he’s chained. The devil is lost, if you like, but all had the possibility of responding to Christ. We don’t know if all did, though.
Q3: Fr. Steven?
Fr. Steven: Yes.
Q3: Prior to Christ’s coming when they were in Hades, the place of the dead, or Sheol, there was no life. Christ came and gave us life, so there was absolutely no life; there was death. He destroyed death on the Cross, did he not?
Fr. Steven: Right.
Q3: So when he came down, with his descent into Hades, he brought life. Would those who had been righteous, let’s say, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so forth and so on, who’d been awaiting their King and their God… He made himself known to them, and those who were unrighteous, those who had rejected him, any concept of a Messiah, the monotheist God before the Trinitarian God, till Christ came, would they be the ones who would be damned because they had even rejected the monotheic God prior to the Christ making himself known? Because you can’t separate God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so therefore…
Fr. Steven: I’m listening and trying to find this one passage that might have something that would help a little bit.
Fr. Steven: Let’s just see if this helps. This is St. Cyril of Alexandria, [who] died in 444, a great, great theologian. He’s talking about the descent of Christ into Hades.
He showed the way to salvation not only to us but also to the spirits in Hell. Having descended, he preached to those once disobedient, as Peter says (quoting the passage of Peter): For it did not befit for love of man to be partial, but the manifestation of this gift should have been extended to all nature. Having preached to the spirits in Hell, and having said, “Go forth,” to the prisoners, and “Show yourself,” to those in prison on the third day, he resurrected his temple and again opens us up to our nature the ascent to Heaven. Bringing himself to the Father as the beginning of humanity, pledging to those on earth the grace of communion of the Spirit.
So here’s St. Cyril; he’s talking about… All are being preached to, and all are given an opportunity to respond even though they were ignorant of that reality we were speaking of earlier.
Just one more here. St. Cyril’s one of our great teachers.
Death [unwilling] to be defeated is defeated. Corruption is transformed. Unconquerable passion is destroyed. While Hell, diseased with excessive insatiability and never satisfied with the dead, is taught, even against its will, that which it could not learn previously. For it not only ceases to claim those who are still to fall in the future, but also lets free those already captured, being subjected to splendid devastation—(that’s a wonderful term, “splendid devastation”)—by the power of our Savior. Having preached to the spirits in Hell once disobedient, he came out as Conqueror by resurrecting his temple (etc.).
So that’s a strong… Just reading this article, I learned a lot from it, and he’s quoting these Church Fathers about the potential for these others to at least respond. Who did and who didn’t… We know that… We call saints the Old Testament righteous: St. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. We call them righteous and saintly. Others we don’t know of. That’s how I would couch that here, based on what I’m reading in the Church Fathers.
Anybody else? Yes? Oh, he’s got the mic; he’s got control of the mic, John here. [Inaudible] Okay. Right here next, John, okay?
Q4: This is the first time anybody has ever pointed out that Christ was in Heaven in those three days as well as in Hell, and he was also someplace else, he was also still in the tomb.
Fr. Steven: But he’s in heaven as the Word of God. It’s a very… I’m not sure I can even answer. You’re bringing up a good point, but his soul and body are still united to the Word, even though they’re separated in death. Does that mean they’re in Heaven? I’m not sure I can fully answer that, but it says he is on the throne in paradise with the thief, and he’s also in Hell with his wholly soulless body in the tomb. The point is there’s nowhere he is not, as Word of God, you see?
Q4: What about those people that he went down [to] in those three days? Did they go up with him when he ascended, because it says he had captives in his train?
Fr. Steven: Right, right. The impression is that they enter his kingdom with him.
Q4: That’s what I always thought, but I was never quite sure.
Fr. Steven: Yes, yes. Some are waiting for him patiently. In Hebrews it says they’re waiting for the salvation that was promised, that wasn’t revealed yet. Once Christ descended they received their reward, so to speak, of their righteous life. Their righteousness could not save them. Human nature was bound to death because of ancestral sin. Once Christ came, then he lifts them up with himself, at least their holy souls. They’re waiting for the Resurrection themselves.
Q4: What about the ones that were unrighteous but they accepted Christ when they’re in there?
Fr. Steven: Well, the way I’m reading it now, they were also saved.
Q4: Okay, so they went up with him.
Fr. Steven: They responded to his preaching.
Fr. Steven: I’m reading all these texts from the holy Fathers who are teaching that. It kind of caught me off-guard a bit, reading it, so I’m glad I read this article before this talk today. It just sounds very convincing, it’s well-researched, and he’s quoting the Fathers, how all had the chance to respond.
We talked about human freedom. Human freedom’s a very ambiguous thing, and we feel that: who can resist the glory of God, but human freedom and perversion… Things can happen, so to speak.
Q4: So he truly took everybody’s sin on that Cross!
Fr. Steven: He did, yes. Those who had already died, those who were living, and those, like us, who had yet to be born. The death of Christ is once for all. It has the once-for-all quality, the redemptive quality of his death. That’s the whole theme of Hebrews, very powerfully. He’s before the Father eternally interceding for us before the throne. We have now access to that throne because of Christ, but he died once for all. It’s a total, universal, salvific death with no limitation to it, at least objectively.
The Calvinists said there’s a limited salvation, because some are predestined, and some are predestined for Hell. They limit the redemption, Calvinism, you see? Many Western Fathers, including Thomas Aquinas, they want to limit who Christ saved in Hell. I’ll give you folks the link to the article. You might want to read it; it’s very helpful.
Q4: I believe you. I like your version. [Audience laughter]
Fr. Steven: Well, no, don’t believe me; believe the Fathers. Forget me; believe the Fathers. Yes?
Q5: I’ve never really heard a good or definitive answer about now that, with the Resurrection and death has been conquered, so what happens when everyone since the Resurrection dies? And where do they really go? In a holding place or being away from the body, being with Christ? Is paradise or the thief on the cross or everything…
Another thing I was thinking about when basically it sounds like what we’ve concluded is that the people before, who were in Hades, got a second chance, basically, so do you think there might be anything like that for… until once the second coming happens and judgment and… I’ve just never really… Where do we go?
Fr. Steven: Those are difficult questions. I was almost hoping you didn’t ask them, but that’s okay. [Audience laughter] There’s no guarantee. Once you start standing up here, there’s no guarantee as to what’s coming next. You put yourself before that…
St. Paul said, “Better to die and to be with Christ,” so he implies that if and when he died, and he was anticipating death when he wrote to the Philippians—I’m quoting Philippians—“Better to die and to be with Christ.” So even at our death, it’s Paschal. Our death is a passage to be with Christ.
We are with Christ not in the fullness of our humanity because our body has not been connected to our soul again and resurrected, but we are still with Christ, enjoying the life of the kingdom with him. That’s why we ask for saints to intercede for us. They are in the kingdom, they are aware, they are interceding, they’re enjoying the presence of Christ, even they not in their total fullness yet, because we’re not at the end of time and the resurrection of the body, which I’ll come to in the second half of our talk.
Referring to this article again, the Bishop Hilarion—and there’s probably some who would argue with him—he has the possibility that even those now who die condemned or unrighteous somehow by the grace of God, somehow through prayer, their fate could change. Some would probably say no to that, there’s no repentance after death. I’m uncertain to this day how to exactly answer that question, but some Orthodox theologians, they’ll leave the possibility of even repentance in that realm of death before the second coming of Christ.
That’s the best I can answer you there, but I think it’s key to note there’s that so-called intermediate period, whatever term you use, we are with Christ even though we’re awaiting the greater fulfillment with the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Like in the book of Revelation, all those souls are praying at the throne of God, so it’s implied that they’re alive, they’re conscious, they’re aware, they’re glorifying God, they’re praying to God: “O Lord, how long?” you know? That is what happens. Death is itself Paschal for the believer. It’s still a passage to be with Christ.
We’ll be further clothed, St. Paul said in II Corinthians 5, and he says even there’s a building. It might mean the Church, but… The Church is one, with the living and the dead. When we gather in the Liturgy, everyone is there: the departed, the living, the angels, our Lord. Everyone is there, so death does not separate us from the love of Christ. It doesn’t separate us from the people who have died before us. That’s why we pray for the departed, you see? I think Protestants, they lose that and miss that completely, that Christ has conquered death and we’re still united in the one Church. What do you call that Church, the triumphant Church or the militant Church, whatever?
Q6: What about purgatory? I know that’s not an Orthodox… But what about those people that, as you say, they haven’t really forgiven somebody in life or haven’t made that commitment to Christ? Is there a kind of a state that they’re in?
Fr. Steven: We don’t accept… You know, purgatory’s very, well, legalistic, frankly. It’s a very kind of scholastic kind of legalistic… Some of the Church Fathers—Mother Gabriella will chime in and correct me if she thinks I’m wrong—some of the Church Fathers talk about a purifying fire. They’re not talking about purgatory, where you’re making reparation and there’s some kind of legal transaction going on, you have to make the right payment, but you can’t come before God with your sins, so you have to be purified completely to come before the holy God, so there’s some kind of a purification that happens even after death, even for the righteous if there’s any sin still clinging there. Do you think I’m reading that correctly, Mother Gabriella? That’s how I’m reading the tradition there.
Q6: What’s the difference between that and… Can you give a difference between that and what the Catholic version is?
Fr. Steven: The Catholic version is—I’m not an expert—the Catholic version is purgatory is a very distinct place or state. Those who haven’t “paid for,” made reparation for all their sins, it has to be worked out there. You get to the indulgences and good works and all that. Orthodox, we have nothing like that purgatory, but, like Gregory of Nyssa and some other Fathers, there’s some kind of purging fire that’s not a punitive fire. It’s not punitive or juridical; it’s a cleansing fire, but it’s still a fire. There’s a cleansing fire; it’s not punitive. The Roman Catholic version, there’s somehow a punitive dimension there. You have to, you’ve got to pay for what you didn’t pay for in this life.
Of the Roman Catholics, many probably don’t feel that comfortable with purgatory any more. You don’t hear as much about it. They’ve abandoned limbo, by the way. [Audience laughter] No, but Pope Benedict, he just kind of abandoned their whole concept even of limbo. Don’t ask me what that is. [Audience laughter] I don’t want to… I might be able to answer it, but… okay. Yes?
Q7: I have just one observation about this. I think it’s very tricky to talk about the Resurrection of our Lord, between now and his coming, because the time has not been fulfilled. We are still living in a transitional period of time, whether we are in this world or in the next. We are not completed. Even if we die in 2010, we have still to wait till the Lord comes and raises our bodies. Only then will we be complete, and only then will the Resurrection of our Lord, that he has shown us, be part of all of us. That’s why it’s a little bit tricky, I think, to talk about this.
Fr. Steven: It is. No, it is. I mean, there are books written about it, and sometimes we try and say too much. It’s more like we have a faith… I like St. Paul’s words: “To die is to be with Christ.” I can die and be with Christ. I think that should be sufficient for us. Our hope… I’m going to talk about the resurrection of the dead in the second half of our talk here, so that’s the completion. Joy?
Joy: The thought is also, I think, in the Scriptures, that we continue even after death to move from glory to glory.
Fr. Steven: That’s true. That’s a good point. That’s a very good point.
Joy: So if we’re moving from glory to glory, there’s a continuous movement, so we can be praying for them, they’re praying for us, and we’re all one body in Christ. You can’t separate Christ from everybody.
Fr. Steven: Right, yeah. Heaven is not static, and we say “Thank God” to that. That’s St. Gregory of Nyssa’s greatest contribution, I think: his Apokatastasis: “We’re always straining further forward into the mystery of God, even in eternity.” There’s no end to the movement, because there’s no end in God. God is limitless, so our perfection in God is a limitless process that continues eternally. St. Irenaeus of Lyons said, “God will always have something to teach us; we’ll always have something to learn for all eternity.” It’s a wonderful statement. Yes?
Q8: I was wondering about the theological and etymological background of “Sheol” and “Hades” and “Hell,” because they’re not the same, but I’m not exactly clear on what they are.
Fr. Steven: I think we use our terms not carefully at times, because, really, this is the descent of Christ into Hades, which is the Greek translation for “Sheol.” Sheol is this kind of shadowy, incomplete, unsatisfactory realm of the dead. I don’t think it implies complete unconsciousness or awareness, how I understand it, but it’s the realm of the dead. It’s still separation from God and alienation.
Hell is really… Hell comes at the end of time. There will be an eternal Heaven and an eternal Hell at the end of time, so “Hell” is more properly used, I think, what we call eschatologically, following the second coming of Christ and the eternal Heaven and the eternal Hell.
Sheol is that realm of the dead that Christ has emptied. Christ has emptied it. It’s a hard concept. We have to just kind of work with it trustingly. Hades is embittered; he has conquered death on our behalf. That’s the key here. Anyone else? Okay.
Well, I saved… I thought we’d do this in two halves, give us a little time, maybe take a little break or something and a little rest here. The second half, I’m going to concentrate a little bit more on what does it mean for us [to be] living in the light of the Resurrection. We had some very good questions, difficult theologically. Hope we maybe got a little lift somewhere in trying to deal with them. Thank you.