Daily Meditations

The Fourth Monday after Pascha: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΑΝΕΣΤΗ! CHRIST IS RISEN!

The Christian Concept of Death, by Father Alexander Schmemann (Part I)

Indeed “if Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.” These are the words of the Apostle Paul, and they remain fundamental for Christianity to this day.

“He suffered and was buried. And He rose again…” After the Cross, after the descent into death there is the Resurrection from the dead — that principal, fundamental and decisive confirmation of the Symbol of Faith, a confirmation from the very heart of Christianity. Indeed “if Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.” These are the words of the Apostle Paul, and they remain fundamental for Christianity to this day. Christianity is a belief, first of all and above all, in the fact that Christ did not remain in the grave, that life shone forth from death, and that in Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, the absolute, all-encompassing law of dying and death, which tolerated no exceptions, was somehow blown apart and overcome from within.

The Resurrection of Christ comprises, I repeat, the very heart of the Christian faith and Christian Good News. And yet, however strange it may sound, in the everyday life of Christianity and Christians in our time there is little room for this faith. It is as though obscured, and the contemporary Christian, without being cognizant of it, does not reject it, but somehow skirts about it, and does not live the faith as did the first Christians. If he attends church, he of course hears in the Christian service the ever resounding joyous confirmations: “trampling down death by death,” “death is swallowed up by victory,” “life reigns,” and “not one dead remains in the grave.” But ask him what he really thinks about death, and often (too often alas) you will hear some sort of rambling affirmation of the immortality of the soul and its life in some sort of world beyond the grave, a belief that existed even before Christianity. And that would be in the best of circumstances. In the worst, one would be met simply by perplexity and ignorance, “You know, I have never really thought about it.”

Meanwhile it is absolutely necessary to think about it, because it is with faith or unbelief, not simply in the “immortality of the soul,” but precisely in the Resurrection of Christ and in our “universal resurrection” at the end of time that all of Christianity “stands or falls,” as they say. If Christ did not rise, then the Gospel is the most horrible fraud of all. But if Christ did rise, then not only do all our pre-Christian representations and beliefs in the “immortality of the soul” change radically, but they simply fall away. And then the entire question of death presents itself in a totally different light. And here is the crux of the matter, that the Resurrection above all assumes an attitude toward death and an concept of death that is most profoundly different from its usual religious representations; and in a certain sense this concept is the opposite of those representations.

It must be frankly stated that the classical belief in the immortality of the soul excludes faith in the resurrection, because the resurrection (and this is the root of the matter) includes in itself not only the soul, but also the body. Simply reading the Gospel leaves no doubt about it. When they saw the risen Christ, the Apostles, as the Gospel says, thought that they were seeing a ghost or a vision. The first task of the risen Christ was to allow them to sense the reality of His body. He takes food and eats in front of them. He commands the doubting Thomas to touch His body, to be convinced of the Resurrection through his fingers. And when the Apostles came to believe, it is precisely the proclamation of the Resurrection, its reality, its “bodiliness” that becomes the chief content, power and joy of their preaching, and the main sacrament of the Church becomes the Communion of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. And in this act, says the Apostle Paul, “proclaiming the death of the Lord, they confess His Resurrection.”

~ Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, Russkaya mysl’, Nos. 3299, 3300, March 13, 20, 1980, translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent, taken from the Website of the Orthodox Church in America, http://oca.org/reflections/fr-alexander-schmemann/the-christian-concept-of-death.