Christ is Risen!
Written by: John O'Keefe
Although I am a Catholic Christian with an Ignatian disposition, I have a special place in my heart for the Eastern Church. As a freshman in college I traveled to Russia for a month and was transfixed by the onion domes and ancient icons of the Orthodox churches we visited. Upon returning, my interest in eastern Christianity continued. I read and was challenged by the work of Catherine Doherty, a social justice activist with eastern leanings. I also devoured the work of Dostoyevsky, especially The Brother’s Karamazov, a novel that remains on my short list of favorites. In graduate school I studied patristic theology and gravitated toward the Greek east. My dissertation was on Cyril of Alexandria, an ancient Christian author decidedly in the eastern tradition.
Of the many things I love about the east, perhaps the most salient is their perspective on Easter and the Resurrection. While Catholics (and all western Christians) tend to think about the redemptive work of Christ as the repair of a moral breach between humans and God, the east tends to think of it as the repair of a physical breach. More specifically, following Paul in the letter to the Romans 9-11, western Christians tend to think that Jesus saves us by justifying us to God so that the egregiousness of our sin is no longer a cause for alienation with God. Jesus bridges the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness. While there is much that is important in this tradition, it is sometimes hard to makes sense of the resurrection.
In the east, on the other hand, the saving work of Chris has always been understood more as a deliverance from bodily decay. The inspiration is also from Paul, especially 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8:20-21. In both of these places Paul states that bodily decay — literally rotting and decomposing — is the physical consequence of the the fall. So in the eastern tradition, when Christ dies he descends to the underworld, breaks down the doors of death and liberates all prior and future generations from decay. Easter resurrection is Christ’s triumphant conquering of death and decay. These traditions are not unknown in the West, they just are not as heavily emphasized. I think they should be. Easter ultimately is more than an announcement of the repair of a moral breach with God. Easter is about God’s definitive “no” to the power of death. Easter affirms our deepest hopes for material resurrection into a restored and renewed creation.*
In an effort to cultivate this eastern sense of Easter in my household, for 25 years I have used the traditional Greek greeting for the pascha on Easter Sunday. Instead of “Happy Easter,” in my house we say “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen) to which one responds “alethos anesti” (he is risen indeed). On Easter morning I always blare the paschal chant from the Russian Orthodox choir at Zagorsk, in which they sing the greeting in Old Church Slavonic. My kids have internalized this. In fact my oldest daughter now is living in Alaska for awhile said even now living away from home she thinks about the singing Russians on Easter morning. I’m going to send her the mp3 file.
So let’s start and Ignatian trend. Instead of uttering the profoundly understated “Happy Easter”, let’s say instead, “Christ is Risen.” And, when we hear it, let’s respond with a hearty “He is Risen indeed.”
* For those who with to explore this further, these themes have recently been beautifully described by N.T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope.
Photo: “Christ is Risen” by “SF Brit” from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)