Trampling Down Death By Death

Archpriest George Benigsen

"If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe." (1 Cor 15:14). Thus the Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the young church of Corinth, places the fact of Christ's resurrection from the dead as the very foundation of the Gospel teaching, the very foundation of our entire Christian faith. What some are inclined to consider a "myth," or "invention," the apostle affirms as unshakable fact, without which both faith and the church become the inventions of human fantasy. This apostolic witness, which is sacred for us, is preceded in the same epistle with the following words: "Christ died for our sins, as written in the scriptures. He was buried and raised to life on the third days, as written in the scriptures." (1 Cor 15:3,4) These words "as written in the Scriptures," serve as apostolic documentation, as we would say today: the documentation of the facts of Christ's death, His burial, His resurrection from the dead. The First Ecumenical Council used this witness in the text of the Creed, the Symbol of Faith, which we so often and so conscientiously repeat during our services and in our personal prayers. We are affirming faith in Christ, who was "crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures." "Scriptures" is that Old Testamental chain of the divine promises, of human faith, of righteous aspiration, of prophetic insight which binds together in one whole the entire Old Testamental history of all humanity from Adam and Eve until Christ's coming into the world. Christ, who by another witness of the same apostle, "was given over to die because of our sins, and was raised to life to put us right with God." (Rom 4:25) Christ, who will come again into this world, not in the image of humility in which He was incarnated in the cave of Bethlehem, but who will "come in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end." Thus we affirm our faith in the Creed, repeating the witness of the apostle Paul: "Because Christ, therefore, died and rose again and became alive to rule over the living and the dead."

This is why such great joy, faith, expectation, and hope overfill our celebration of the radiant resurrection of Christ. This is why every seventh day of the week is dedicated by the Church to the fullness of the Pascal joy. Our entire faith, our entire worship is founded on this joy„from the day of Christ's resurrection from the dead even till now. It is precisely this Pascal faith, this Pascal joy which sounded from the lips of the first Christian martyr, the Apostle and Archdeacon Stephen, when from under the hail of stones thrown on him by the hands of his murderers, "he looked up to heaven and saw God's glory, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:55)

Without faith in Christ's resurrection, holiness is impossible. Impossible is true Christian witness, impossible is martyrdom for Christ. That martyrdom on whose blood the Church of Christ was built from the earliest centuries of Christianity to the very recent victories of the Church of Russia in the last decades of its now millennial existence.

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death." Already for centuries this victorious hymn, the hymn of triumph and victory of life over death, has sounded beneath the domes of our churches. It thunders under the domes of our cathedrals, it victoriously rings out in our parish churches and in modest village churches. It sounds in the hearts of the faithful as it sounded in the catacombs of the Roman empire in the early days of Christian martyrdom, so it sounded in a subdued way in the contemporary catacombs of a persecuted faith: in the jails, in the camps, in the solitary cells. It was never silenced and as always, it sounded most victoriously in the believing human heart.

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." "O death, where is your sting? O hell where is your victory?" This challenge was thrown to death and hell by the great father of the church St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century. The words that we hear every Easter night read in all churches, are the words of his Paschal sermon. Whatever progress a mind deprived of God may announce, whatever kingdoms of freedom, equality and brotherhood it may promise in the future of humanity, the logical end result of all these promises is a constantly strengthened hell on earth. And personal existence ends with the one inescapable fact of our life, senseless and completely unjustifiable death. Death which can find its justification only in this "trampling death by death." In the death of Christ, "giving life to those in the tombs." In the death of Christ which opens to all those who believe the gates to the Kingdom of God„"whose kingdom shall have no end."

Christ is risen, dear friends. May the light of His resurrection shine in your hearts, remain in your life, and bring you freedom and new life in our Holy Church.

Broadcast in Russian to Russia over Radio Liberty, Easter 1988, Year of the Millenium of the Baptism of Russia