Saturday, September 18, 2010

Living in Greece, Part 11

Monday, 13 September
On Christ’s Death and Resurrection

Today was our chance. We arrived at the church half an hour later than planned, but still while the matins were just underway, and there were very few people there. The queue was short, only half a dozen people. (Yes, a queue! I take it back; Greeks DO know how to line up! They just don’t do it very often.)

This fragment of the Cross is mounted in an icon, done in mostly gold paint, showing St. Helena, who has just found and identified the True Cross, and the then Patriarch of Jerusalem holding the Cross on high for all the people to see. The Cross itself, in each dimension, is approximately the size of the hand cross a priest uses to bless us at the end of the Divine Liturgy. Its center is some 8 inches tall and its arms are perhaps seven inches across. Each beam is about a half inch wide and a quarter inch deep.

Of course the icon is under glass, and the whole is mounted in an elaborate silver frame.

I was able to take the aisle seat in the front row, where I could see the Holy Cross the whole time, even as people were kissing it and prostrating themselves before it. (No, they aren’t worshipping the Cross itself, but bowing before the miracle that happened there, when God in the flesh poured out His love upon the whole world.)

All sorts of people came, men and women, old and young, mothers with babes in arms, mothers with children wearing backpacks in readiness for school, people who could hardly walk, and – for me the most touching of all – a man suffering some sort of psychosis. He looked unwashed and was wearing ragged clothing; the back of his tee shirt read, in big Greek letters, “Fool”. He stood in front of the Cross, spread out his arms, and prayed long and aloud, with many sighs and the frequent, “Alas!” It made me think of the publican in the Parable. This man may have been crazy, but he was no fool.

After the Divine Liturgy, we walked down to Queen Olga Boulevard for some breakfast at a little outdoor eatery there. Then on to the Monday market, several blocks away, and thence home, where I quite soon fell asleep until it was time to prepare a late lunch.

It has occurred to me to wonder what if Christ had died a peaceful death one night in His sleep? It would have been disastrous for us! Well, no, His conquering of death would still be our great joy, BUT…

But we would not be able to say that God loves us enough to have shared even our worst suffering. Yes, He died, we’d say, but He didn’t condescend to die the way some of us have to, horribly.

We wouldn’t be able to say, “Whatever dread path I may ever have to walk, He has walked it before me.”

We would not be able to add, “…and that’s how I know I shall find Him there at the end of it.”

Much less, “…and that’s one way I know He will be and is with me every step of the way, His Presence transfiguring even the most gruesome and hideous circumstances into a foretaste of heaven.”

Christ’s resurrection is not simply the Father’s stamp of approval for the suffering He underwent on the Cross. Nor is it simply a postscript to the supposed “real story” (His suffering) that makes it come out right in the end. Nor yet is it, as I once imagined, just a personal victory for Him, as in, hooray for You; You triumphed and we are very happy for You (and so proud to be followers of such a glorious King)! No, His resurrection is a victory on our behalf! It’s our death He kills by His own death.

How does that work? We don’t know! It is a mystery too great to grasp. But by resorting to poetic language we may perhaps get some sort of cognitive angle on it. Soooo…

Just because this will make it easier, imagine death as a place instead of a condition, a place of darkness and despair and destruction, where everybody eventually ends up. Into this realm, which we call Hades, comes Christ. (In straightforward language, He dies.) And into this gloom He brings His Light, lighting up the darkness. And into this miserable place He brings Love, turning the despair to Joy. And into this destruction He brings indestructible, divine Life. Now this once wretched place is overflowing with light and love and life and joy – rendering it no longer Hades at all, as we had known it, but a forecourt of heaven. That, in poetic terms, is how Christ, by dying, tramples death underfoot.

(Back to straight language for a moment) Death, like every evil, is ultimately weak, having no substance. As darkness is nothing in its own right, but only the absence of light, and as cold is nothing in its own right, but only the absence of heat, so death is nothing in its own right, either, but simply the absence of Life. Christ supplies the missing Life, as He also supplies every other missing Good – curing every corresponding evil. And I want to say He supplies every Good in infinite measure, but I think that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, as ignorance is cured by knowledge, as foolishness is remedied by wisdom, as darkness disappears in the presence of light, so death is annihilated in the Presence of infinite, everlasting, divine Life. Death simply disappeared the day the Immortal One met it.

I am not a poetic person; much the opposite. Most poetic language makes no sense at all to me. But this is (mostly) the imagery the Church uses. So I hope this language, although poetic, makes some sort of sense to you. If not, I can sympathize, but forgive me, I cannot do better.

Someone else can, though, guaranteed. Never stop searching.


Michelle M. said...

I'm sorry I don't comment very often, but I do still read :)

I loved this post! Thanks for writing it.