This evening in the midst of the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil, all of us here at St Aidan’s in Manchester are one with the early Church, thanks to the baptism and chrismation of our newest member, Betul. This was the evening when the early Church brought its catechumens into the Church after years of teaching and preparation. Betul, this is the beginning of a new season in your life; and so may this coming year be a new season for all of us, as we draw closer to each other and closer to Christ.
There is a short poem by the Welshman, R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), called “The Bright Field.” I would like to share it with you now, because it catches the present position for the newly baptised Betul, for us as a local church and for the Orthodox Church as an international presence in the world:
I have seen the sun breakthrough
to illuminate a small field/ for a while, and gone my way
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
As we seek “the bright field” that is the presence of Christ in our lives, it is good to remember that “Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past.”
Let’s turn now to the Gospel for this evening. The last chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew which we have just heard begins with the words: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave [of Jesus].” That’s all of us! It is still dark, yet we are at “the dawn of the first day of the week.” As a fifth century archbishop and preacher, St Peter Chrysologus, explains: “What was normally the beginning of night now becomes the break of day. . . Mortality is transformed into immortality, corruption into incorruption and flesh into the Word of God, the darkness is transformed into light”. And St Peter C. makes it clear that the source of that light is the Life of Christ. That is the title of this sermon: “From darkness into Life.”
St Matthew continues the story of this remarkable night with the words: “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” [end of quote]. Why? Why was the stone rolled away? St Peter Chrysologus preached with remarkable power to his local congregation in Ravenna (now in Italy) and to us across the centuries, and I quote: “An angel descended and rolled back the stone. [The angel] did not roll back the stone to provide a way of escape for the Lord but to show the world that the Lord had already risen. [The angel] rolled back the stone to help his fellow servants [that’s us—fellow servants of Christ] believe, not to help the Lord rise from the dead,” preached St Peter Chrysologus. “[The angel] rolled back the stone for the sake of faith, because [that stone] had been rolled over the tomb for the sake of unbelief. He rolled back the stone so that [Christ] who took death captive might hold the title of Life. Pray, brothers [and today, we would add sisters] that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave. May it be believed that just as [Christ] died, so was he transformed. Christ the man suffered, died and was buried; as God, He lives, reigns, is and will be forever” [end of quote]. That is quite a challenge to me, and I hope to each of us: “Pray, brothers [and sisters], that the angel would descend now and roll away the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen.”
It is true: That stone was rolled away from the grave of Jesus Christ “for the sake of faith”—for the sake of the faith of the women visiting the tomb that they might believe that Christ had risen. The remarkable fourth and fifth century preacher and Church leader, St John Chrysostom made the same point as St Peter Chrysologus with a single, short sentence: “This is why the angel rolled the stone away and why an earthquake took place, that [the women] might be thoroughly … awakened to the resurrection” [end of quote]. And so may all of us!
Why do we often find it difficult to be “awakened to the resurrection?” Perhaps it is because we focus so firmly on the Crucifixion. Perhaps we tend to believe wrongly that the crucifixion is a sign in some way of an imaginary failure in the life of Jesus Christ on earth. St Peter Chrysologus certainly understood the meaning of the life and death of Jesus Christ. He preached: “The angel [announces] the [Presence of] the Lord; [the angel] speaks of His subjection and sees that the full offense of the Passion has been transmuted [that is, changed in form] into the glory of the Resurrection. How could anyone judge that God was lessened by becoming human? Or believe that His power was demeaned by his servanthood? The angel speaks worthily of the crucified one” [end of quote]. And so may all of us speak worthily of the crucified one, Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected.
Note that St Peter Chrysologus preached of how “the angel rolled back the stone so that [Christ] who took death captive might hold the title of Life”—Life with a capital “L.” A Coptic Orthodox Monk, Matta El Meseen, known in English as Father Matthew the Poor (1919-2006), has written in his book, The Titles of Christ, that one of the titles of Christ is “Author of Life.” Christ is the Author of Life because, as Father Matthew the Poor wrote: “For the first time, humanity got to know, see and touch eternal life in Christ. He had not only risen from the dead, but was also alive with an everlasting power which death could never overcome. . . . But eternal life was not to be made known through Christ except after a public confrontation on the cross with death, and with the devil, who has the power of death. Christ accepted the challenge, sure of His eternal life. . . . [Christ] had to become incarnate [that is, become human] to be able to take to Himself the death sentence that had come upon us and nullify it [that is, to cancel it out] in the flesh—to bear our sins in His body, on the tree.” Father Matthew cites the First Epistle of Peter, chapter 2, verse 24: “‘[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, for by His wounds you were healed.’”
The key idea that Matthew the Poor and St Peter Chrysologus and St John Chrysostom are seeking to communicate to us is that one of the reasons the Crucifixion happened was because we needed it. As Matthew the Poor phrases it, “The Author of Life [Christ] entered . . . the battle between life and death . . . for our sakes, by taking to Himself our death in the flesh on the cross. With the Resurrection, [Christ] gave us His eternal life in that same flesh. In this manner, humanity gained a partnership with the Author of life, in death as well as in life” [end of quote]. So it is that tonight we gain “a partnership with the Author of life.” We are aware of both His Crucifixion and His Resurrection.” At midnight, we celebrate primarily His Resurrection, but tonight we can rejoice in the unity of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. We do not rejoice that the Crucifixion was necessary for humanity—and for each of us as a unique person who is also a member of humanity. But we do rejoice that we have each been freed from sin by Christ’s death and Resurrection.
Now, let us continue this Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil, receive Holy Communion and become one with Christ’s purposes for each of our lives. I conclude with the words of Father Matthew the Poor: “When we eat the broken bread and drink the shed blood, we acquire the mystery of death transformed into life…a participation in that same death and same resurrection to eternal life: [In the words of St John] ’He who eats my flesh [and drinks My blood] abides in Me, [and I in him].’”