The Orthodox Christian Faith is rich in Holy Tradition. We have many centuries of history, countless Saints, a vast and varied liturgical tradition, and many other treasures. Both from the inside and the outside, the Orthodox Church can seem overwhelming. While this can seemingly be true, the ultimate reality is that the essence of the Orthodox Christian Faith is very simple and boils down to just one vital question: did, in fact, Jesus rise from the dead? We know that Jesus was an historical figure, and that this man died at the hands of the Romans. We know that he was a Jew, for we know his family and his lineage. We know where he was born, and who his friends were. Everything else that either requires faith or that is a belief of the Christian Faith depends upon whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead.
On the face of things, we can examine the record. History will attest to the fact that Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to be scourged and crucified for treason. After His death, He was then laid in a grave by several of His disciples. Surely, out of their love for Jesus, they would have also verified his death rather than burying him alive. The Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, posted his own guards to watch over the tomb, so we know that the body of Jesus was not stolen. In fact, we know that even while the guards were still posted at the tomb, Jesus was bodily resurrected early Sunday morning. The first witnesses of the empty tomb and the risen Lord were the myrrh bearing women. In addition to these women, several of His Apostles also saw him on this same day–some in and around Jerusalem and others on the road to Emmaus. A second encounter took place on the eighth day after his resurrection in Jerusalem, where Thomas, who had been absent on the first day, was able to experience the resurrected Christ. All in all, the resurrected Jesus was seen by over five hundred followers over a period of forty days.
All of this evidence is certainly significant, but pales in comparison to the change that took place in Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. On the fortieth day after the resurrection, Jesus gathered His disciples together on the Mount of Olives and reminded them of His teaching on the coming of the Holy Spirit. He commanded them to wait for this coming of the Holy Spirit, and then, with the power of the Holy Spirit and the conviction of the resurrection, He sent them into all the world, proclaiming the good news of the resurrection and making disciples of all nations. It is important to remember that these same disciples tried to prevent Jesus from even going up to Jerusalem for fear of persecution and danger. These same followers of Jesus abandoned Him when He was arrested, and actually locked themselves in the upper room for fear of the Jews.
What made all the difference was the reality of the resurrection! Jesus’ victory over death and His triumph over sin and the devil were now events that these disciples had experienced. They were eye witnesses that Jesus had actually died and then rose from the dead. They knew He was a man, and now they knew for absolute certainty that He was also God! This experience of the resurrection transformed them and empowered them. It actualized their faith into action. Once they had received the Holy Spirit, they drew lots, seeking from God where each would go to share with the world the liberating, transforming and saving truth that death had been destroyed and salvation was theirs. The same people who had been dominated by fear, doubt and selfpreservation had now become bold, courageous and willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Gospel. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, fishermen had become wise theologians and instead of drawing fish into their nets, they drew the whole world. In just one short generation, the entire Roman Empire and even beyond had been turned upside down for Christ.
What is amazing and extremely relevant for us is that their success in converting so many had far less to do with their words than it did the witness of their deeds due to their undeniable faith in the resurrection that was palpable in every fibre of their being. It is this same conviction burning in their hearts that motivated them to endure hunger, thirst, buffetings, homelessness, labor, ill treatment, persecution, slander and to be considered the refuse of the world and offscouring of all things. They became confessors of the faith in the face of torture, even offering up the ultimate price, their lives, in martyrdom.
I say that their witness is relevant for us today, because so many in our times have been inoculated by a diluted Christianity. For this reason, our own Abbess Evpraxia of Goldendale once said, “Our society does not need more words about God. What we need is the witness of holy lives in action.” My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if the reality of the resurrection had the power to so radically transform the Apostles some two thousand years ago, I assure you that the same transformative power is available to us today. What is necessary is the same shift that occurred in the Apostles from a theory to a living experience of the resurrection burning in our hearts. A diluted Christianity is willing to settle for doctrines that remain outside us, relegated to books, the mind and experienced only in external rituals. This expression of Christianity is weak and therefore powerless to affect true change. What is needed, especially in our day, if we are to be changed and if we are to be instruments of change around us, is for the reality of the resurrection to become our own living reality.
The most important step in this process is to overcome the fear of death. St. Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews “that the fear of death leads to bondage.” (Heb.2:15) This fear comes from different sources. First, many are tempted to love the world and the things of the world even more than the Creator. This causes many to forget about God and therefore leads to distorted thinking, being and living. Second, many care about God and His eternal Kingdom, but they live in the world, where it is difficult not to be of the world. People sin; they struggle with their passions, and for this reason, they fear death because they fear facing God. They know they are not ready!
In order for the resurrection to be transformative both for us as faithful Orthodox and for the world, we need to seek to draw close to the resurrected Lord and experience Him as tangibly as possible. We love life and the created world around us because they reflect the goodness and love of God, but we cannot allow ourselves to substitute the creation for the Creator. This is why God founded a Church. The Church provides us with a way to center our lives, our thinking, our relationships, our routines, our priorities and our formation as humans made in the image of God and called to His likeness. The Church unites us to God and ushers us into His Kingdom, even while we are still in this world. “Blessed is the Kingdom…now and forever.” If you wonder why Great Lent is such a special and powerful season of grace, it is due to the fact that so many center their lives to such a deep degree in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. It is important to keep in mind that this was certainly true of the first century Apostles and disciples of Christ. The Church for them was their life. They did not make a distinction between Christ and His Body. They also did not compartmentalize God and the Church, relegating it to just a part of their lives. For them, Christ was risen, the Holy Spirit was present with them, and they wanted to share this Good News with the whole world. “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news.” (Rom.10:15)
Lastly, but certainly not the least, is the importance of being ready to die. This probably sounds morbid, but it does not necessitate a dislike for life or a death wish. In fact, those who live each day as if it were their last because they remember the certainty of death and judgment are actually more alive and aware of God and His love and goodness than the masses who are forgetful of these truths. The greatest examples of this way of life are the Saints. They were exceedingly present in each moment of their lives as they cultivated a ceaseless remembrance of God. They lived their lives to the fullest and made every moment a seamless investment in eternity due to a healthy remembrance of death. They were ready at every moment to greet death as a passover to eternal life. This blessed balance between a love for life and a courageous readiness to die is what gave them power and grace. They experienced the living Christ and therefore witnessed abundant possibilities beyond the grave to those they encountered.
My dear brothers and sisters in our resurrected Lord, we need to imitate the example of the Saints. While experiencing the “abundant life” Christ promises us, we also need to be prepared to meet death, whenever it comes, with a “Christian end to our lives.” If today was our last day to live in this world, how would we live, what would our agenda be, how would this influence our choices, our priorities? What role would confession have in our life if we knew that this day we would be meeting God and then the opportunity for repentance would be over. The first Christians made the right choices in answer to these questions, and therefore, were free of fear. Armed with an experiential conviction of Christ’s resurrection coupled with a spiritual readiness to die and meet God, these men and women went forth with joy and power. They faced every hardship and every trial with faith and a peace that surpasses all understanding. This is what God also wants for us. May the joy, peace and transformative power of the resurrection be ours during this Paschal Season and everyday of the rest of our lives. Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!