Pascha: Do you know why we’re here today?
Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at St. Mary Orthodox Church
Let me put that differently – do you know why we’re here today, on Sunday? Remember, the people of God had always worshipped Him on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, as Moses had told them to do way back in the book of Exodus. The Sabbath was to be a day of rest, to commemorate the fact that God spent six days - or periods of time - creating the world and everything in it, as described in the book of Genesis, and he rested on the seventh day. “Wherefore,” Moses tells us, “the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)
Even during the life of Christ, people did no work on the Sabbath; that was the day to worship God. But something changed between then and now. And that something is the event shown in the icon we’ll be talking about today, the icon of Pascha. We worship God on Sunday, the first day of the week, because that’s the day Christ rose from the dead.
Today also happens to be the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. And the cross is the beginning of the series of unfolding events that culminated in the Resurrection. So on this Sunday, midway through Lent, we pause in our fasting and self-denial and look ahead toward the cross, think on what it means for us, and venerate it. We are strengthened and encouraged by the fact that we are following Christ’s example. As he said in today’s Gospel, “Whoever desires to come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) These days we have seen people, especially in the Middle East, living out their belief in these words and dying for His sake and the gospel’s. And in our own lives, meditating on these words will remind us that you can lose your life in more ways than by dying. We can lose our self-centeredness, we can lose gluttony, pride or lust, we can give up the pursuit of things we used to think would make life worth living, and focus instead on growing closer to God, and meeting the needs of other people.
In venerating the cross and looking ahead to the end of Lent we are reminded that Christ himself did not desire to save his own life, but gave himself to be crucified. As the priest reminds us in every Divine Liturgy, he wasn’t just betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane – but rather, he gave himself up, willingly, for the life of the world.
As we all know, and say together every Sunday in the Creed, he “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again.” This is the Nicene creed; the Apostles’ creed adds one more detail: after he was buried “He descended into hell.” The word “hell” here does not mean a place of punishment as we typically use the word today; rather, it means the “place of the dead,” or Hades.
And what did he do there? This is the part I never learned when I was growing up in the Protestant church. I was taught that Jesus died for my sins, that he loved me so much he was willing to die in my place – and I assumed that was to protect me from the punishment that my sins deserved. But as an Orthodox Christian I now understand that God isn’t mad at me, and Jesus’ death had nothing to do with punishment from God, aimed at me or anyone else. Instead He died to release us all from Death. As a Protestant I learned that Jesus lay dead in the tomb for three days, and then came back to life. That was all I knew of the resurrection – only that He was resurrected. But I have now learned that while his human body lay in the tomb, his soul – his eternal being, his divine essence – descended to Hades, where everyone who had ever died before that moment was confined. And there he did battle with Death, smashing the shackles of everyone who was imprisoned there – as we sing, “overcoming Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
That’s what the icon for Pascha is showing us. When I first started learning about this icon I was confused by its name. Sometimes it’s called the “Descent Into Hades,” but sometimes it’s called the “Resurrection” icon. (The word at the top, “Anastasis,” is “resurrection” in Greek.) Actually it’s both descent and resurrection. Looking at the icon you can see it’s full of action. You can see that Christ has just descended; by the way the end of his garment is ruffling upward. And you can see resurrection all around him, in the people he is bringing up from the dead. Many of the kings and prophets of the Old Testament are here – we can recognize King David and King Solomon standing on his right (on the left side of the icon) with John the Forerunner, who went before him in life and also in death, and who even in Hades is gesturing toward Christ as if telling people “See? Here is your Messiah!”
On His left side, some versions of the icon portray a few people, while others show a vast crowd of people trailing off into the distance, all of whom he is raising from the dead. Among these people we see the young shepherd Abel, son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his brother Cain and was the first person in the Bible to die. We also see Moses (an old man with white hair), and maybe Isaiah.
In the middle of the icon we see Christ himself, surrounded by a blue, almond-shaped, glowing light. I’m informed that’s called a “mandorla,” Italian for “almond” because of its usual shape, and it represents the uncreated, eternal light of Christ – the glory of Christ. We can also see it in the icons of his Transfiguration, his Ascension, the Dormition of the Theotokos, and the icon of Christ in Glory – all of which teach us that the light of Christ transcends the material world.
In this icon Christ is trampling the gates of Hell under his feet (here they are fallen in the shape of a cross), and usually we see discarded locks and keys all around. At the bottom, in the dark, we see Death himself lying defeated, bound and helpless.
Christ is vigorously pulling Adam and Eve up from their tombs, showing that he is redeeming all mankind, even back to the very beginning. You can notice that he is pulling them by the wrist, rather than by the hand – all they have to do is reach towards him, and he does all the rest. This tells us that the same is true for us: we only have to want him to save us and he pulls us up.
Releasing everyone from the power of Death, He returns to his body, and on the third day – that is, on Sunday – he rises from the dead in the ultimate Resurrection. And so we sing, over and over, every year, the Paschal Hymn:
"Christ is risen from the dead, and by his death he has trampled death, and unto those in the tombs he has granted life!"