Theme: The Day of Resurrection
by Fr. Sean Levine
by Mr. Andrew Boyd
by Dn. Jason Ketz
by Ms. Andreea Bălan
More information on the authors and contributors can be found here.
By Father Sean Levine
Pascha takes place in the spring; the season of increasing light that comes as the world emerges from the darkness of winter. While the Feast of Nativity takes place at the darkest point of the year, the Feast of Feasts takes place within the context of increasing light after the long months of darkness. In both Feasts, we celebrate the emergence (or breaking through) of light in the midst of the dark. Nowhere have I experienced the profundity of this reality more poignantly than at Kandahar Airfield, Regional Command South, Afghanistan.
The only standing Christian “churches” in Afghanistan belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church, and they were built by Romanian military personnel with the help of other men and women belonging to various military and/or civilian organizations with whom the Romanians share bases. In Kandahar, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant helped to supply materials and building expertise in order to construct a replica of one of Romania’s beloved monastic chapels. The Romanians have vowed to disassemble this chapel and take it home with them when their time in Afghanistan comes to a close.
Other chapel facilities exist on every base in the country, but these buildings facilitate all sorts of meetings and are not, strictly speaking, Churches. The Church in Kandahar, where I served Holy Week and Pascha in 2011, belongs to the Romanian Orthodox Church, and this temple remains dedicated to Orthodox Christian worship. On its main cupola, their stands, stretched high into the sky over the base, the Life-giving and Honorable Cross of our Lord; the only such religious symbol of its type on the base.
We started with nocturnes in the darkened Church located in southern Afghanistan, and this service spoke, with the most profound depth, of the threat of sin and death. On Holy Friday, in the center of the Church, we placed a wooden iconographic representation of the winding sheet (since it is not practical to use an actual epitaphios, which would be quickly ruined by travel and dirt). There lay the Savior, and with Him the hope of the whole world, dead and entombed on a simple foldout table covered in black cloth in one of the world’s most dangerous war zones.
Gathered around that table, people from the United States, India, Egypt, Romania, Bulgaria, and several other countries experienced two distinct types of darkness: the darkness of the Crucifixion and the darkness of war. Fighting men and women stood solemnly by the tomb of the One who gave His life without a fight in order to save the world. The irony struck my mind hard creating one of those moments of intense cognitive dissonance that one never forgets. I thought to myself, “Does this even make sense? How can we reconcile all of this? What does this irony really mean? Am I desecrating the very idea of “Life in Death through surrender” by celebrating this service for war fighters in a combat zone? Does this belong here?”
Several moments later, we extinguished all light, and then began chanting, “Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee in purity of heart.” From the darkened sanctuary, through the Royal Doors, I brought forth the paschal light shining from the trikiri, and the light spread through the darkened chapel as the faithful lit their candles. We concluded our procession around the chapel and proclaimed the resurrection on the chapel steps, and then entered the brightened nave. At that moment, clarity washed over me as did the light of Holy Pascha: of course the Cross/Resurrection belongs in a combat zone; in fact, where else on this war-torn planet could such glorious realities be more aptly proclaimed?
For the Orthodox faithful celebrating these services, the true Light of the Gospel burst forth right in the midst of the heart of darkness. Outside the fence of that base existed an active and dangerous war zone; arguably one of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth. What better place could there be in which to shine the light of the reality that war will not have the last word. War remains one of the most graphic reminders that this world has not yet been fully redeemed, Cain still slays Able daily on this cosmic battlefield/cemetery, and the deceiving and destructive perpetrator of sin and human brokenness still prowls about reaping havoc. And right there, in the midst of that utter darkness, the Light of Pascha burst forth and shined with all the glory of the Life that trampled down death by death; that Life that walked out of the tomb having harrowed hell itself.
For the rest of that Paschal service, I felt very much “at home.” Thousands of miles away from the safe parishes of the United States, I sensed that I had been instrumental in bringing Pascha to exactly the place where it was the most “needed.” All of us would have preferred to celebrate this glorious Feast of Feasts in the various parishes of our native countries, for sure. Yet Pascha is Pascha wherever you celebrate it, and that night/morning of 23/24 April 2011, we raised war-torn Kandahar, Afghanistan into the realm of the reality that “Christ IS risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” We celebrated the Light of Life in the midst of the darkness of war and death, and the shadows fled.
Photos in this article are courtesy of The U.S. Army and taken by Sgt. Jennifer Spradlin, 16th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
By Mr. Andrew Boyd
By a series of unforeseen events in the spring of 2009, I found myself arriving at the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, for the end of Holy Week and Pascha. I don’t really speak Greek that well, and I am not someone who would normally go to a monastery, but I also at the end of the day have limited control over my own life. So, following the orders of my boss back in Athens, I walked into the Monastery of Osiou Grigoriou on the morning of Holy Thursday. I was tired from the overnight bus ride, grouchy and more than a little disoriented as I followed other pilgrims through the gates of the monastery.
As I walked in I was greeted not by monks, but by two college students from America, whom we’ll call Mike and Dan (mostly because those are their real names). I was shocked. Mike and Dan went to different colleges than I, but we all knew each other from OCF retreats and conferences. They happened to be visiting the exact same monastery on Athos as me on the exact same days. Mike was in graduate school in Thessalonica and Dan was studying abroad in the Netherlands and had come to Greece on vacation.
For the next two days, the three of us banded together to endure the monastery’s grueling liturgical schedule. We huddled together around our one English language service book in the back of the monastery’s church, and hiked around the monasteries property between services. All of our ascetical effort led up to that night, the night of our Lord’s resurrection. I didn’t know what to expect Pascha to be like on mount Athos. On the one hand, Pascha is Pascha, how different could it be? On the other hand, I never knew what to expect in this monastic castle next to the sea.
Around 9pm on Saturday the monks started reading the Book of Acts in the Church. We stood outside in the courtyard, chatting with a Georgian monk. The Paschal Service started at 11pm. With great anticipation, we all entered the dark church. There were only two candles lit, just enough light for the monks in the choir to see their books. The monks started chanting the solemn Canon of Holy Saturday, which focuses on Christ’s burial and entombment. Around midnight, the Canon having been completed, the last candles in the church were snuffed, and we stood in darkness, awaiting the announcement of Christ’s Resurrection. After a minute of pregnant silence and darkness, the doors of the altar were flung open, and a priest came out with a candle chanting:
“Come, receive the light, the unyielding gift of light, from the light that is never overtaken by night. Come glorify Christ risen from the dead.”
Everyone in the church went up to the priest and lit candles from his. The church became filled with light. We then made our way out into the courtyard of the monastery for the beginning of Paschal Matins. Under the bright stars, with a cool breeze off the water, we stood and listened to the Abbot proclaim the Gospel of the Resurrection. After the Gospel reading, Matins began. The first singing of, and requisite shouting of “Christos Anesti” soon followed. “Christos Anesti” or “Christ is Risen” is both the iconic hymn of the Orthodox Easter season, and the common greeting of the season.
As we entered the church again, monks were waiting to shout “Christos Anesti!” at us, throw holy water in our faces, and shake bells at us. Immediately, we vaulted into the beautiful poetry of the Paschal Canon by St. John of Damascus. It was very moving to hear it in the original Greek.
Towards the end of matins, we all approached the Monastery’s clergy, to exchange the Paschal greeting with them personally. Many of the priests greeted me in English, which was nice to hear. During the singing of “Let God Arise” and the Paschal Verses, a monk grabbed a bunch of us young men and led us outside. What was waiting for us was a basket full of huge wooden poles that are used to call people to prayer (often called a Semandron). You put the pole over your shoulder and smack it with a mallet. About fifteen of us ran around the church smacking these things while the monastery bells rang. It was quite a rush.
As Liturgy began, pilgrims and monks took turns singing “Christ is Risen” in their own language. Luckily, Mike is an amazing singer, and led us in a great rendition of the English version. We sounded much better than the impromptu slavonic choir, to almost everyone’s surprise.. Liturgy ended around 3:30am, and having feasted on God’s word and Christ’s body and blood, it was time to break the ascetic fast.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Orthodox take lent rather seriously, and usually don’t eat animal products during the fast. We usually break our fast early in the morning will all types of wonderful meat and dairy products. However, the consumption of meat is not permitted on the Holy Mountain. So, as I sat down in the dining hall, I was greeted by a piece of fish, fish soup, feta cheese, bread, a hard-boiled egg, and some cake. While we all broke the fast, Father George, the elderly abbot addressed us all. We were allowed a luxurious twenty minutes to eat instead of the usual fifteen.
On Pascha morning, we all got to sleep in a little. Well, as much as sleeping can occur in a room full of snoring, old Greek men. We had a simple breakfast in the guest house, consisting of feta cheese, bread, hard boiled eggs and some sweets. The plan for the day was to hike to Simonapetra Monastery, which is the closest monastery to Grigoriou.
We started our trek sometime after noon. The hike isn’t all that long, it’s just up a giant mountain, via a rather precarious path. As we walked up the mountain, Mike shared with us a simple lesson.“Don’t look up,” he said, “ you’ll fall into despair seeing how far away the top is. Likewise, don’t look down, you’ll become prideful seeing how far you come. Just focus on where you are right now.” I was rather more concerned with falling off the loose-rock path down the cliff to an end that would certainly be messy.
I was glad when we reached the gate of Simonapetra’s property. Little did I know, that it was another twenty minutes, uphill, to the monastery. This part of the walk was a little easier; it was on a sloping cobblestone road rather than a precarious path of loose rocks next to a steep cliff. When we finally got to the monastery, I was ready to collapse (I’m not in good shape now, and wasn’t then either) .We made our way to the Monastery’s guest house, as is the proper protocol. As I collapsed on the couch, Mike asked “How are you feeling?”
“Blarrrrrrg,” I replied.
“Don’t Worry, the monks will fix you right up”
Was he right. An older monk came out of the little kitchen with a tray full of frozen chocolate treats and shots of monastic moonshine. Apparently, this is their secret weapon to combat fatigue from hiking. We all stood up, and shouted “Christ is Risen!” as we downed cold shots of what must have been at one point paint thinner. With that, I was ready to go again.
The Vespers of Pascha started around five in the afternoon. The church at Simonapetra is brand new (or newly restored, I was never really sure which) and has not yet been frescoed. The white walls were a stark contrast to the gold-leafed iconostas, and richly carved wooden appointments. Simonapetra is known for having the best choir on the Holy Mountain, and they didn’t disappoint. They were augmented by a group of young men from Syria, who sang portions of the service in Arabic. Traditionally, the Gospel reading at this service is read in as many languages as possible. The monks read it in Greek, Slavonic, German, Latin, French, Romanian, Arabic, and English. An American monk (there are two at Simona Petra) read it in English.
Father Maximos, one of the American monks, met with us and gave us a tour of the monastery. He is from Long Island and was formally a professor at Harvard. He showed us some of the monastery’s recent renovations, which include solar panels and a hydroelectric generator. The monastery gets 93% of its power from these two sources. He also explained the history of Simonapetra. The monastery was founded in the early 1200’s, which is remarkable in Church History. During the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Catholics decided to conquer the Orthodox too. During this “Latin occupation” virtually nothing happened in the Orthodox Church, except for this monastery being founded. Saint Simon, the monastery’s founder, lived in a cave. On Christmas Eve, he had a vision of the Mother of God telling him to build a monastery on the rock where it is presently located. He did, and he named it “New Bethlehem.” The other monks on Mount Athos didn’t really like this name, and took to calling it Simon’s Rock (Simonapetra) instead.
We talked with Fr. Maximos for a while, until we realized that the sun was setting. We had to high-tail it back to Grigoriou, before it got dark and they closed the Monastery’s gate for the night. As we walked out of Simona Petra, Fr. Maximos pointed out the odd cloud formations low over the water. He said this happens only once or twice a year. It makes it look like the monastery is sitting above the clouds. As we walked down into the cloud layer, I could only think that this was a perfect ending to an experience I will only ever be able to describe as other-worldly.
Another Look at the Orthodox Celebration of Holy Saturday
By Deacon Jason Ketz
A great deal of attention has been given in recent decades to the recognition of Holy Saturday as the Blessed Sabbath. However, as central as the Sabbath theme is to our understanding of Holy Saturday, we would be selling ourselves short to think that our liturgy has such singular focus. The symbolism of ritual is universally multifaceted, and I would like to look briefly at a very subtle theme in our celebration of the Lord’s three-day Pascha. A theme that gets relatively little mention in our hymnography, but is pervasive in both the relevant Gospel passages of Holy Friday and Saturday, and in our liturgical actions: sacrifice.
Sacrifice is a key tenet of Judaism, and it has been appropriated in the Christian tradition. The Epistle to the Hebrews offers the most complete theological presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, but how does the letter translate a religious/political execution of a criminal into a cosmic liturgy of atonement, with the priest offering himself as a sacrifice for the people? The difficulties in this argument extend far beyond the stumbling block of the cross (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Sacrifice is a rite within an entire ritual framework, and an element cannot simply be plucked out at random, and said to be observed entirely out of context. It would not make any sense!
Rather than attempting to independently verify the theology of Hebrews, I would instead like to quickly survey our liturgical celebrations and Gospel accounts of the passion, as Hebrews does: within the ritual framework of Jewish temple sacrifice. This requires an awareness of two key concepts. First, that ritual is a constructive process that establishes relationships, and second, that symbols within the ritual are not required to ‘mean something.’ Symbols are not used to exclusively to communicate explicit ideas, but may indicate something, as if by pointing.
Atonement is most easily understood as a sacrament of reconciliation. As it is presented in Leviticus 16, the high priest enters the holy of holies and makes a sacrificial offering for himself and then for the people of Israel. This sacrificial rite restores Israel to good-standing within the covenant relationship with God. The ritual has a few key components, including the sacrificial offering, the priest who makes the offering, and a space in which the offering is made. Leviticus 16 describes an autonomous and fully functioning system of worship, and all of the components support each other. This symbolic matrix neither requires nor encourages interpretation for the ritual to function, and the symbols indicate more than they explain.
One example of index-symbols in the atonement ritual is blood. Blood is mentioned extensively in the sacrificial practices of temple worship, and it may, or may not mean anything in the rite of atonement (Lev 17:11 notwithstanding). But the blood indicates things, beyond what is expressed in Lev 17:11. The altar is the designated place of interaction between God and man. It is consecrated with a sprinkling of blood (Lev. 8:15ff), and this is repeated with each sacrifice (Lev 1:5; 16:14-15, 18ff). The offerings are sacrificed by priests, who are daubed with blood at their ordination (Lev 8:23ff). So, whatever the blood may communicate, or whatever unique properties blood might have, it indicates a relationship of holiness. People and places authorized to participate in encounters with the divine are marked with blood.
If we take this indexical approach to our Holy Saturday celebrations (including Matins and the Vesperal Liturgy), we are able to move beyond the hymnography, to see a collection of subtle themes arising here and there throughout our Holy Week services. One such theme, that is more clearly indicated than communicated by our Holy Saturday liturgy, is the theme Christ’s passion as sacrificial atonement.
When we first look for symbolic indications of atonement in our celebration of the passion, we are confronted not with a wealth of new symbols, but instead a glaring absence. In particular, there seems to be no altar! The altar is the locus of divine and human interaction, making it required for the sacrificial rite of atonement, but neither Paul nor the Evangelists make a clear case for the altar’s cosmic location. Even St John’s interpretation of Christ’s body as the temple (John 2:21) cannot sustain an extended discussion of the atonement ritual. As we mentioned earlier, the temple altar is indicated by other symbols, so we can allow other symbols to point us toward the symbolic altar in Christ’s passion. Blood is the first logical candidate. But its paucity in the passion accounts (John 19:34 is a noteworthy exception) will require us to look more deeply within the passion accounts for indicators of the temple ritual. Christ’s passion in the Gospel of John is effectively a sacrificial atonement, but as with most of New Testament Scripture (until Hebrews) the symbols are too scarce to support the connection to Leviticus.
The Apostle Paul provides the early connection we are seeking, and we are exposed to his theology through the Epistle on Holy Saturday. The reading, Romans 6:3-11, is significant beyond its easily identified vestigial relationship with baptismal liturgies in the ancient Church. The Apostle directly connects Christ’s death to atonement (particularly in Romans 3:21-26), but he never allegorizes the process. He does, however, provide the church with our point of departure for further symbolic expression, with the ‘baptismal’ epistle mentioned above. Having established that Christ’s blood provides expiation (Rom 3:25),  Paul then connects us to Christ’s death through baptism. And in this passage, we have our best candidate for a symbolic altar for the atonement sacrifice: the tomb. The apostle tells us that through baptism, we are buried with Christ in death (6:4). Indeed, once established, the tomb is an apt location for an altar of cosmic atonement. Christ’s body – the sacrifice – is placed in the tomb, and from the tomb comes the resurrection, God’s response to the sacrifice.
The Gospels, for their general lack of explicit temple-atonement symbolism, do offer one unanimous possibility regarding Christ’s burial. All four evangelists testify that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus in linen for his burial. Of course, linen would be typical of burial rites, but plain linen cloth also makes an unexpected appearance in the atonement rites of Leviticus. Priestly garments are depicted in Exodus 28-29 as incredibly ornate, if Exodus 28-29 are any indication. And yet the Day of Atonement ritual clearly stipulates that the high priest wear only a plain linen garment and turban while making the atonement (Lev 16:4). Only after the atonement sacrifice has been offered is the priest expected to change out of his plain linen garments into the ceremonial vestments of the priesthood (Lev 16:24). The priest is officially indistinguishable (and unprotected from the holiness of God) for the duration of the sacrifice. This may well be a visual representation of the entire atonement rite: while the sacrifice is being made, all of the normal temple activities are suspended, until the covenant is restored through the atonement. Are we to see Christ’s burial garments as the high priest’s clothing on the Day of Atonement? One would hope for better linguistic parallels between Leviticus and the Gospels – a linen robe and turban is not the same as a linen cloth. On the other hand, Christ’s non-descript entry into the tomb and his change of clothing at the completion of the cosmic atonement certainly point in the direction of the priest’s initial and concluding actions of the Levitical atonement ritual.
For all of these indices, the tomb would only be a locus of interaction between God the Father and Christ, were it not for Paul’s belief that human beings participate in God’s plan for salvation. The Apostle incorporates us into the tomb through baptism, as heard in Rom. 6:3-11, on Holy Saturday. Now, the tomb is our location of interaction with our creator. Christ mediates the initial encounter, as sacrifice and as High Priest. And our baptism, which is our birth of water and Spirit (cf John 3:3-8), is an indication of our own ordination as priests, now authorized to enter the tomb ourselves, and seek a life-giving encounter with the Lord.
Once this simple link is forged between Christ’s passion, the tomb and sacrificial atonement, a number of additional symbols emerge in our Holy Saturday celebrations that point us in this direction. The Saturday service includes a change of vestments after the epistle and before the Gospel, which proclaims the resurrection. The placement of the burial shroud in the church makes the church a tomb, and we come on Saturday for Matins (Friday evening) to glorify Christ’s life-giving death. Our icons of the resurrection show Adam and Eve encountering Christ in Hades, and their being raised out of their tombs. And for several centuries the Church has also incorporated iconographic depictions of Christ’s burial on either the aer or the antimension – the cloths which sit respectively above and below the gifts on the Holy Altar as the Eucharist is being prepared. Here again is this unexpressed and unexplained connection between the Eucharist sacrifice and Christ’s body, dead as sacrifice.
Perhaps the most powerful connection to atonement in the midst of our celebration of Christ’s passion, is the Eucharist itself. Holy Saturday is a day we celebrate the Eucharist. We come to church, on that Sabbath that sits temporally between the death and resurrection of Christ, for an encounter with the Lord, through the sacrament of the Eucharist. This very encounter that is experienced liturgically throughout our lives is the one that awaits us each in the reality of our deaths. It is nothing less than the encounter of Lazarus, remembered by the Church only one week prior, when our Lord encounters his friend Lazarus, dead in the tomb, and cries “Lazarus, Come out” (John 11:1-44).
The hymns and liturgical dialogues of the Orthodox Church are powerfully communicative, and ritually significant. But our participation in the liturgy is not dependent on our cognitive understanding of what is being said and done. Thus, from time to time it may prove beneficial to change up the questions we ask about church services. If we suspend our pursuit of “why?” and “what does that mean?” for a moment, we can see connections between our liturgical prayers, our liturgical actions, theology and the Scriptures that defy explanation and yet powerfully influence our liturgical worship of our Lord, and his three-day Pascha.
 This theme is already present in the Church’s hymnography (cf. Doxastikon of Lord, I Call… for Holy Saturday, tone 6), dating from the first millennium. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, [“Great and Holy Saturday” reprinted in the Service Book of Holy Saturday (Syosset: OCA, 1986), 3-7], calls the Vesperal Liturgy of Great and Holy Saturday “the liturgical climax of the church.” And Fr. John Behr, [The Mystery of Christ, (Crestwood: SVS, 2006), 109-11 and throughout]. himself crediting St Irenaeus of Lyons, has expanded an insightful parallel between Genesis 1 and John 19, to see in our celebration of Pascha a recap (or even a starting point!) of God’s plan of creation and redemption of the world.
 David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988), 9-12.
 Saul M. Olyan, Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult, (Princeton: Princeton Univ Press, 2000), 4.
 William K. Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004), 2-8. In understanding symbol, Guilders is drawing upon the work of Olyan and several ritual theorists, including Kertzer, Catherine Bell and Roy Rappaport.
 Cf. Jan Willem Van Henten, The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees, (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 156. Van Henten offers an extensive working of another case of non-temple sacrificial atonement: the death of the Maccabean martyrs in 2 (and 4) Maccabees. A more technical definition becomes problematic due to conflicting OT examples, as recognized by Leander Keck, Romans, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005), 109.
 Gilders, Blood Ritual, 6-7 and throughout his entire monograph.
 In his first epistle, John again mentions blood, in conjunction with water and Spirit, all three of which ‘flowed’ from Christ at the moment of his death (cf John 19:30, 34). John states that these things witness that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (1 Jn 5:8-9). Unfortunately, this lone mention of blood is not enough to indicate a cosmic altar for Christ’s sacrifice.
 Charles A. Gieschen, “The Death of Jesus in the Gospel of John: Atonement for Sin?” Concordia
Theological Quarterly 72 (2008), 245-52; and contra Ruldolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament 2 vols Kendrick Grobel, trans. (Waco: Baylor Univ Press, 2007), 2:54. “The thought of Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin has no place in John”
 Schmemann, “Holy Saturday,” 6.
 John B Cobb, Jr and David J Lull, Romans, (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 64, point out that Paul is
not textually bound to Lev. 16 for his interpretation. Perhaps, but I suspect that he follows it more closely
than is commonly believed.
 James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1998), 218-23.
 Deborah W. Rooke, “The Day of Atonement as a Ritual of Validation for the High Priest.” In John Day, ed. Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel (New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 355.
 Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008) 172-7, points out the weakness ofChristian use of temple symbolism. However, Gilders, 3, in his introduction discusses the advantage to newer approaches to ritual studies that don’t require such rigid one to one links of symbols, ideas, actions, etc. He believes that this better captures the power and polyvalence of the rituals under examination.
Photos of the Matins of Holy Saturday at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC are courtesy of oca.org and were taken by Yuri Gripas.
by Andreea Bălan
Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.
– Song of Solomon 4:16 –
My favorite time of the day is dusk. It’s the interval between the sun’s sinking beyond the horizon and the twinkling of the first star. Mighty Helios is already in his lair, having finished his great journey across the sky, yet light still lingers for a little while longer. There is something different about the quality of the light and the stillness of nature at dusk. There is almost a sense of danger that comes along with it, when one passes from one stage to another. It’s akin to a liminal stage, a rite of passage if you will — one stands at a threshold, when nature and humanity wind down from a long day and prepare for the night. Yet, paradoxically, it’s as if this time contained both what comes before and what comes after for what seems like mere seconds. The same can be said about its twin, dawn — only in reverse. One must be really still to capture these moments, or they are gone before consciousness can catch up with them.
When I picture Mary Magdalene walking to the tomb of Christ on that first Easter morning, I imagine that time (a few minutes? a few hours?) stood still or was suspended momentarily. It was as if dawn lasted just a while longer before the day burst forth in all its splendor. It was the liminal stage of humanity, when the age of the old human is left behind and the age of the new human takes its place. This faithful woman, having seen her beloved suffer beyond any comprehension; having witnessed his disciples fleeing and abandoning him at the cross either out of weakness or stupidity or simply fear and disappointment (disappointment that he was not the fearless Messiah they were expecting to liberate Israel from the yoke of Roman slavery only to lead them to political independence and prosperity); and having buried his broken and disfigured body, meanders to his tomb to anoint him who has been dead three days. What was Mary thinking at this time? Maybe she was contemplating her chores for the day. Maybe she was wondering who would roll away the tomb stone, something she had not calculated when she left home that morning, while it was still dark. Maybe she was remembering the times she spent with Jesus while he was alive. Maybe she was thinking of his words, still deeply etched in her mind and her heart.
As she approaches the burial place, Mary notices that the stone is gone. In a state of panic, she runs back to alert some of the men that someone stole the Master’s body. She makes the trip back home twice as fast, heart pounding, trying not to engage the grim thoughts that are already threatening to take over her mind. She finds Peter and John, and together they run to the tomb. The men enter the cave, and, having confirmed the woman’s story — no signs of the body, just the linen cloths lying there — they leave. No words of comfort for Mary. No effort to alleviate the obvious pain that she’s experiencing, so easily dismissed as a woman’s hysterics. Ultimately, no reverence for the body — the woman’s “irrationality” is the only one that takes that into account. The two disciples leave her in the garden, just as two days earlier they left Christ at the cross.
The sense of abandonment that Mary felt at that moment must have been crushing and incredibly isolating. Yet it is precisely in this abandonment, which leaves us open to vulnerability, that we find ourselves in Christ’s company. Jesus the man nailed to the cross the ideal of the male as the conquering stoic hero, the man of war who brings home the spoils of battle. He refused to succumb to the seductiveness of power, crushing it under his feet, bruising forever the head of that serpent. And just as humanity’s story begins in a garden, so does it end — but with a twist. The woman is no longer blamed for her actions, abandoned by Adam when she needed him. The New Adam identifies with the forsaken, yet faithful woman, who, in her agony, her face gleaming with tears, peeks into the tomb. She is allowed to see what the men were not: two angels are sitting where Jesus’ body had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They address her directly, asking her why she is weeping. Their presence cannot have been entirely calming, for who can stand to look upon such heavenly messengers without some measure of fear? Mary hastens to answer, and her response betrays nothing but the utmost love for and devotion to the Lord, even in his death: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13).
Unlike in the Garden of Eden, it is God who hides himself from man when he hears his footsteps, only to reveal himself to the woman, who, in her distress, turns around only to not recognize her Creator standing right in front of her, confusing him for the gardener (the irony!). Hoping that this man can help her, she asks if perhaps he has taken the body — and if so, he only has to tell her where he hid it, and she will carry it back. No tone of accusation. No fingers pointed. Just a burning desire to take care of Jesus, even though he may be a rotting corpse. The same disregard for her own strength that she exhibited earlier (a few minutes ago? a few hours ago?). Christ looks into the shining face of his friend, inwardly smiling. He simply says, “Mary.”
One word — Mary — but in that word she recognizes him. It is perhaps the only word that she has heard since his death without any hint of accusation, exclusion, or condemnation in it. It is fitting that Mary does not discern Jesus’ identity at first: it is God’s prerogative to love first and to know first; we simply follow suit.
In this profound encounter, Jesus reverses the curse brought upon the woman as a result of her eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” declared Yahweh to a still nascent creature (Genesis 3:16). The New Husband puts that imprecation to death. No longer is the woman to be subdued, but she is the first to be entrusted with the proclamation of the gospel. “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).
Fr. Sean Levine has been serving the men and women of the Armed Forces, first as a Chaplain’s Assistant and later as a Chaplain, for nearly 14 years. Recently ordained as an Orthodox Priest (OCA), he currently serves as a chaplain in the army assigned to Fort Lewis, Washington.
Mr. Andrew Boyd grew up in Guilford, Connecticut and is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Business. He is a third-year student in the Master’s of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His home parish is St. Alexis Church in Clinton, CT. His is the managing editor of this blog.
Deacon Jason Ketz is a third-year M.Div student at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a B.S. in Microbiology, and worked as the Quality Manager at a printing company for several years in his home town of Minneapolis, before answering a long-standing call to theological studies and, God-willing, pastoral ministry. He and his wife Elizabeth have three children; Sophia, Patrick, and Natalie. His home parish is St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis.
Ms. Andreea Bălan was born and raised in Romania, moving to the U.S. when she was 16 years old. After graduating from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM with a degree in liberal arts, she went to study theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Upon completion of her degree in 2010, she relocated to Dallas, TX where she serves as the youth director for a local Orthodox Church in the Antiochian archdiocese.