O, Death

“Christ Is Risen”
A sermon by Alexander Schmemann, 1921- 1983

Every time we see death face to face, the death of someone whom we knew and loved, who was a part of our own life; every time we contemplate this strange immobility, this frightening presence of an absence; every time death reveals to us its inescapable, brutal power over life all human words seem to lose their significance. Explanations no longer explain; theories and ideas no longer help.

But when death brings to naught all the beautiful theories which seem so meaningful and comforting as long as death itself is but an idea and an abstraction, a distant horizon, maybe it is only then that we can accept again, comprehend again that which we usually forget yet which stands at the very heart of our faith: Christ’s own horror of death!

We are so accustomed to the idea that religion’s main task and function is to explain and to comfort, to make death into something "normal" and "rational" and thus acceptable, to reconcile us with death, that we forget Christ's attitude toward death. It comes to us as a shock to realise that Christ, when his hour to die approached, began to be "sore amazed and very heavy"; that at the grave of his friend Lazarus, Jesus wept; that nowhere in the gospel can we discover that attitude toward death which seems to have permeated all religions (perhaps even to have produced them and justified them in the eyes of men) the understanding of death as something inescapable and therefore normal, natural and therefore good! No, we are not followers of Plato and of his innumerable disciples who tried, for centuries, to convince men that death is a liberation and must he sought and loved! No, we are not with those who at this horrible hour would quietly and self-confidently dissert about the immortal soul and the "other world" (spiritual and eternal) as taking care of our grief, anxiety and despair.

At this ultimate hour, facing this death, contemplating this face, this unique human being to whom life was given as a divine gift for whom the whole world was created as his life, his joy, his meaning, we know, with a knowledge that no idea and no theory can destroy, that death is absurd and criminal, a separation that nothing can justify, a destruction with which nothing can reconcile us.

But then all we can do is to follow Christ as he slowly proceeds toward the grave in which his friend Lazarus is hidden from the eyes of man, toward that darkness which once more has swallowed and destroyed the light of life. He sees Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, weeping “and the Jews also weeping which came with her.” And seeing that grief and that despair he “groaned in the spirit,” says the gospel, “and was troubled.” He is with us, weeping with us, groaning with us.

“Where have you laid him?” he asks.

And as they answer unto him, "Lord come and see,” he himself begins to weep.

It is into the ineffable mystery of those tears that we have to enter.

‘Lord, come and see.”

But what does he see? He sees his friend, the one whom he himself has brought into his marvellous light of life, to whom he himself gave the ineligible beauty of the divine image, for whom he himself has created this world and made it to be very good. He sees this friend taken away, hidden under a stone, separated from life and light, from love and communion, disposed of as refuse for “he stinks.” And seeing this he weeps at the defeat of God by something God has not created (death), at the insult, at the horrible challenge, at the demonic rebellion against life. It is life crying over the destruction of life; it is God contemplating the annihilation of his work. And what these tears reveal to us then is that we should not accept death or be reconciled with it. For to accept it and to be reconciled with it means that we accept the victory of the enemy, that God has failed in his creation and that death which he has not created is truly the ultimate law of the universe and the ultimate no to God.

Thus, it is at the grave of Lazarus that the hour of which Christ has spoken of as “his hour” begins, the hour for which he came, the hour of the ultimate fight so that the last enemy (death) may be destroyed. It is at the grave of Lazarus that he himself makes his entrance into death. He calls Lazarus back to life, but Lazarus will die again. This is then just a sign, an announcement, a declaration of war. No, he himself. in whom is life and who is life, will descend into dying and death, will partake of all human despair and horror of death, will taste of its horrible reality. And by doing this, by accepting this, by assuming death, he will destroy it from inside. He will trample down death by death. For his death is only love only obedience, only compassion. No one takes his life, but he himself lays it down and thus death itself is filled with life. Death itself becomes the ultimate act and victory of life.

“Death is swollen by victory!”

We offer at this time no comfort and no help. We only confess and proclaim that in one man death was overcome, in one man the divine creation was restored, the ultimate victory won.

Do we believe in him? Do we love him? Do we follow him? If we do then to this grave, to this man whom death has taken from us, to this grief and suffering, we have nothing else to say but, “Christ is risen!”

And his resurrection is ours. It is the mysterious light shining in the midst of this mortal world. He has entered the dark kingdom of death, he has filled all things with himself and, thus, even when we descend into that darkness, we find Christ there, the risen Lord, the life and the way. And while we still weep, deep down in our hearts the mysterious joy begins to dawn.

A voice says to us, “Why do you cry?”

A certitude comes that death has been overcome and its dominion has been shaken.

Christ is risen!

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