The most famous sermon ever preached in Christian history has to be the one given by St. Peter to the multitude on Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The second most famous sermon, however, must be one given three hundred years later by St. John Chrysostom on Pascha (Easter) morning at the great midnight vigil. But St. John’s sermon has the distinction of enjoying an ongoing career as a living homily still preached every Easter in hundreds, probably thousands, of churches across the world at their midnight vigils. The words of the homily are timeless and universal, and they magnificently describe the truth of Easter:
“If any man be devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast! If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; Because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first. He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour. And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; And to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; Receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival! You sober and you heedless, honour the day! Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast you all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go away hungry. Enjoy you all the feast of faith: receive you all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal Kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered when it encountered You in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your 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 the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”
The Truth of Easter is the triumph of God over his enemies -over our enemies- namely, sin, death, and the forces of evil. This truth is not a philosophical idea. It is not a poetic fairy tale. It is not a mere doctrine to be set alongside other doctrines to form a complete religion that we can subscribe to in order to make us feel complete or correct or -God forbid- comfortable. The truth of Easter has changed the entire world and cannot be undone. It is binding; it is finished.
From the moment Jesus spoke those words on the cross and gave up his soul, human death was forever changed. There once was a place –we’ll call it a “place”, even if it was perhaps more like a vague, shadowy mode of existence– in which our first father and mother, Adam and Eve, found themselves after they died. They died because they listened to and were deceived by a serpentine liar -the father of lies, in fact- and disobeyed the one commandment that God had given them. Their disobedience separated them from God, meaning that they shifted their very existence away from the only One who could sustain their existence, and thus death entered their nature. When they found themselves torn in two, soul from body, they also found that ancient serpent had made himself the gatekeeper of that shadowy place and the master of that beast whose jaws we call Death. And every son of Adam and daughter of Eve from then on likewise sinned, and all likewise tasted death.
There was once a daughter of Eve who had a son which was no son of Adam. This son of Mary was instead the Son of God, who had chosen to become incarnate in the fullness of time. He became like us in every way except that he did not sin. So when he encountered death, it was voluntary, entering those jaws not as a victim but as a Victor. Death, not realizing that in swallowing this man it had just allowed itself to be swallowed by God, was ransacked from within. The gates were broken down and the gatekeeper, the devil himself, was bound. The place of darkness was overcome with the light of God. “The light shines in the darkness,” said the Apostle John. And some translations say the darkness did not ‘comprehend it’ and some say the darkness did not ‘overcome it.’ The darkness neither comprehended nor overcame it.
Because this happened long ago now, and involve our ancient ancestors, and occurred in a realm we cannot see, I know that sometimes it’s possible that this may just seem a bit unreal to us, maybe a bit irrelevant, at least a bit distant. But death is not irrelevant to any one of us. Death, which is never so very distant and which may come at any moment for any of us, instantaneously unites us with thousands of generations of ancestors and reveals that hidden realm. What’s different about death now is that its jaws have no venom: “Where, O death, is now your sting?” Now death’s gates are broken and shattered: “Where, O hell, is now your victory?”
Now that shadowy place is populated only by those who rejected the Light that has shone so brightly in it. It’s pitiful gates are only locked, as they say, from the inside. Those who have chosen the Light and have faith in Jesus are in the newly opened Paradise, with the penitent thief and all the righteous souls who were once in prison, and with Adam and Eve. What Christ did to death is real and it matters to all of us – all of us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who must enter death. The difference Christ’s death has made means we have a question set before us: will we enter death as victims like before, or as victors like Christ?
How could we enter death like victors, we sinners who are not God? We transform our death into Christ’s death firstly through baptism: being buried with Christ in the cleansing water. Then by living a life of repentance, continually offering ourselves to God, and “picking up our cross and carrying it,” we carry it straight into death with us, just like Christ in the resurrection icon. Bearing the weapon of the cross into death, we are admitted to Paradise.
But if even all of this is still too difficult to hold onto, still too far away or removed to pierce our hearts or unlock our minds, the Harrower of hell re-emerged from the other side of death and re-entered history on a Sunday morning, in the spring time, in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical event. Eye-witnesses have given their testimony. There’s an empty tomb. There’s nothing shadowy or hard to grasp about showing wounded hands and feet or eating broiled fish or walking on a beach.
What we celebrate on Easter is both the reality of what our Lord did in death and his bringing that to bear on the lives we live here in history. We celebrate his victorious death and his glorious resurrection. As we sing on Good Friday: We venerate thy Cross O Lord, and praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection. It’s the resurrection of Christ that gives us confidence to die like him and with him, because we know that we will also share his resurrection ourselves: when the whole of creation is remade, and there be a new heaven and a new earth, and in all the ages of ages to follow, in that world without end, we will grow from glory unto glory, always glorifying him who is our life. “Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”