Daily Meditations

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

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

Those who turn to Christianity turn not to ideas or principles, but they accept this belief in the Resurrection, this experience, this knowledge of the risen Teacher. They accept faith in the universal resurrection, which means the overcoming, the destruction, the annihilation of death as the ultimate goal of the world. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death!” exclaims the Apostle Paul in a sort of spiritual ecstasy. And on every Pascha night we proclaim, “O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. Christ is risen, and life reigns!” In this way the acceptance or non-acceptance of Christ and Christianity is essentially the acceptance or non-acceptance of belief in His Resurrection, and in the language of religious representations that means belief in the union in Him of body and soul, of which the dissolution and ruination is death.

We are not speaking here about those who reject the Resurrection of Christ because they reject the very existence of God, i.e. convinced (or think that they are convinced) atheists. The discussion concerns a quite different area. Of much greater importance is that strange “obscurity” of faith in the Resurrection, which I just mentioned, among those very believers, those very Christians who connect in a peculiar way the celebration of Pascha with the actual, perhaps often subconscious, rejection of the Resurrection of Christ. There has occurred in historical Christianity a sort of return to the pre-Christian concept of death, which consists of, first of all, a recognition of death as a “law of nature,” i.e. a phenomenon inherent in nature itself, with which, for this reason and no matter how frightening death might be, one must “come to terms,” which one must accept. Indeed, all non-Christian, all natural religions, all philosophies are in essence occupied with our “coming to terms” with death and attempt to demonstrate for us the source of immortal life, of the immortal soul in some sort of alien world beyond the grave. Plato, for example, and countless followers after him teach that death is a liberation from the body which the soul desires; and in this circumstance faith in the resurrection of the body not only becomes unnecessary, but also incomprehensible, even false and untrue. In order to perceive the entire sense of Christian belief in the Resurrection, we must begin not from that belief itself, but from the Christian concept of the body and death, for here lies the root of the misunderstanding even within Christianity.

Religious consciousness assumes that the Resurrection of Christ is first of all a miracle, which of course it is. But for the average religious consciousness this miracle is even greater: the miracle of all miracles remains “unique” so to speak, pertaining to Christ. And since we acknowledge that Christ is God, this miracle ceases to be a miracle in a certain sense. God is almighty, God is God, God can do anything! Whatever the death of Christ signifies, His divine power and might did not allow Him to remain in the grave. Yet the fact of the matter is that all this comprises only half of the age-old Christian interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ. The joy of early Christianity, which still lives in the Church, in her services, in her hymns and prayers, and especially in the incomparable feast of Pascha, does not separate the Resurrection of Christ from the “universal resurrection,” which originates and begins in the Resurrection of Christ.

Celebrating one week before Pascha Christ’s raising of His friend Lazarus, the Church solemnly and joyfully confirms that this miracle is a “confirmation of the universal resurrection.” But in the minds of the faithful these two inseparable halves of the faith — faith in the Resurrection of Christ and faith in the “universal resurrection” initiated by Him — have somehow become disconnected. What remains intact is the belief in the rising of Christ from the dead, His Resurrection in the body, which He invites the doubting Thomas to touch: “Reach hither thy finger, and thrust it into My wounds: and be not faithless, but believing.”

Now as for our mortal and final destiny and fate after death, which we have begun to call the world beyond the grave, this destiny and fate has gradually ceased to be interpreted in the light of the Resurrection of Christ and its relation to it. As far as Christ is concerned we confirm that He rose from the dead, but as far as we ourselves are concerned we say that we believe in the immortality of the soul, in which the Greeks and Jews believed ages before Christ, in which to this day all religions believe without exception, and for which belief the Resurrection of Christ (however strange this may sound) is even unnecessary.

What is the reason behind this odd bifurcation? The reason lies in our concept of death, or better in a different concept of death as the separation of the soul from the body. All pre-Christian and extra-Christian “religiosity” teaches that this separation of the soul from the body should be regarded as not only “natural” but also positive, that in this should be seen a liberation of the soul from the body, which prevents the soul from being spiritual, heavenly, pure and blessed. Since in human experience evil, disease, suffering and the passions arise from the body, the goal and meaning of religion and the religious life become naturally the liberation of the soul from this bodily “prison,” a liberation precisely in death which allows it to attain its fullness. But it must be most strongly emphasized that this concept of death is not Christian, and furthermore it is incompatible with Christianity, manifestly contradictory. Christianity proclaims, confirms and teaches, that this separation of the soul from the body, which we call death, is evil. It is not part of God’s creation. It is that which entered the world, making it subject to itself, but opposed to God and violating His design, His desire for the world, for mankind and for life. It is that which Christ came to destroy.

~ 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.