Saturday, March 30, 2013

Christ Leaves No One Behind

Easter Sunday

“We leave no one behind!” Does this expression sound familiar? It should – you’ve heard it before from the lips of the stereotypical mud encrusted, battle worn, biceps bulging, tobacco chewing sergeant or commandant, who rallies his troops to make one last almost suicidal ditch to rescue captured fellow comrades or to recover the bodies of fallen heroes. The words seem almost magical and powerful in being able to pierce, invigorate and inspire even the most faint-hearted and exhausted of troops and fill them with new fighting spirit. Some believe the popular Hollywood inspired version is a variation of one of the basic pillars of what soldiers calls the Warrior Ethos: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Obama Barack, president of the U.S.A., gave a further twist to it when speaking of his plans to move U.S troops out of Iraq, “We don’t turn back.  We leave no one behind.  We pull each other up.”

On Easter Sunday, the Sunday of all Sundays, we celebrate not just the power of rhetoric, we celebrate a reality, a truth – it is this, starting with Jesus Christ, God affirms that He leaves no one behind! God has not abandoned his only begotten Son to death. In fact, Christ is actually on a secret mission of the Father. He accomplishes the mission of God, a mission once considered vastly more difficult than the worst Mission Impossible assignment you can imagine. That mission is to vanquish the old enemy of humanity – sin, and it’s most powerful minion, it’s prison warden, death – and rescue man from its clutches. And the only way to do it was to be thrown into same prison. The empty tomb is God’s smoking gun – it is the definitive sign of Jesus breaking free from the prison of Hades, Death, he tramples down the gates and the walls that have kept generations incarcerated, and he has triumphantly set us free! The significance of Easter is that Jesus is announcing not just to Christians, but to the whole world, and not just to this generation but to all generations – “We leave no one behind!”

We affirm this truth whenever we recite that ancient baptismal creed, the Apostles Creed, “he descended into hell.” The word ‘hell’ here of course did not refer to the state of final damnation, but was rather a reference to the realm of the dead (the Greeks called it “Hades” and the Jews “Sheol”). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "By the expression 'He descended into Hell', the Apostles' Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil 'who has the power of death' (Hebrews 2:14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him."

This descent should not be seen as just the natural result of his human death. It is more. Christ willingly died for a purpose; and his descent to the dead is part of that purpose. Christ goes to Hades on a mission. He goes, tradition has it, to the limbo of the Fathers, where the souls of the just slept in death, waiting for the gates of heaven to be re-opened on the day of salvation.  In other words Christ goes to the realm of the dead to announce to them that their salvation has come and that heaven has opened to them at last, and lead them forth. Christ’s mission is one of liberation, from the jaws of death; and the dead heard the good news before the living. In early Christian iconography, Jesus is depicted as storming Hell, the gates of this prison lies trampled beneath his feet, and he begins the salvation or the freeing of all its inmates beginning with Adam and Eve. But Adam does not merely represents himself. He stands for all humanity. Therefore all have the opportunity to hear the word proclaimed and respond to it. In Christ no one is overlooked or left behind.

An ancient homily for Holy Saturday, whose author is unknown, celebrates this in vivid terms. While on earth there is silence, under the earth (as it were) Christ is emptying Hades with solemnity. The new Adam goes to rescue the first Adam, his father in the flesh, with the command, “awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead”. Adam and his progeny can now rise from the dead because Christ’s human death transforms death for all the children of Adam. For just as what happened in Adam (sin) happened for us all, so too what happened in Christ’s human flesh happened for us all: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Or as the ancient homilist has Christ put it, “Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person”. Death had, as it were, led humanity into a walled-off, dead-end street; Christ now breaks through that barrier so that death might now launch humankind onto the highway to heaven. For it was for heaven, not for Hades, that God through Christ made us: “I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld”. In Christ no one is overlooked or left behind.

At the Orthodox Feast of the Resurrection, the Holy Pascha, the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest doctors of the Church, is read at the end of Orthros (Matins, today it is substituted with the Office of Readings). In the powerful and moving words of this ancient homily, the victory of Christ is announced:

Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, "Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions." It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
"O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?"
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.

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