Psalm 67/68:17-19; Ephesians 4:7-11; John 20:19-31; 1 Corinthians 3:9-17
This week our Orthodox cycle of hymns for Sunday, the day of resurrection, brings us to the verge of mystery. We are led to contemplate both the heights which Christ has scaled, and the depths which He has plumbed for us. We are also led to gratitude for the gifts with which He has showered us as a result of His exertions. The Troparion is particularly dramatic, situating our Lord both on high, and in the tomb for our sake:
From the heights, O Compassionate One,
You descended to your three-day burial,
that You might free us from our passions.
O our Life and Resurrection, O Lord, glory be to You!
In this hymn, God the Son, the One who by His nature dwells in the highest, descends to us out of His compassion. Lurking behind this troparion are several Old and New Testament passages, as well as the entire story of salvation. The hymn proclaims the character of our God—glorious and compassionate. It also designates His divine home, on high, as well as His willingness to embrace the dark parts of the world, which He created “good,” but which has fallen. And the hymn also rejoices in the result of the divine tour from heaven to the tomb—that we might be freed from all that disturbs us. (It is helpful to notice that the Greek word which may indeed be translated as “passions” has a WIDER connotation than simply our unruly will and emotions. It also corresponds to anything from which we suffer: sin, death, and corruptibility). Finally, the hymn expresses our conviction and joy that Christ our God is both the source of our life, as well as the source of our new life in the resurrection: He is the Life and the Resurrection!
The dynamics of this great story are seen throughout the whole of Scripture, of course. But there are several points in Scripture where Jesus’ adventure from the heights, to the depths, and back to the heights, is condensed in a few picturesque verses. Many will think for example, of Philippians 2:5-11. But even more closely corresponding to our hymn is that wonderful passage from Ephesians 4, which adapts and fills out some verses from Psalm 67 (LXX)/68. Listen first as we hear the Psalmist rejoicing in God’s victory:
The chariots of God are ten thousand fold, thousands of rejoicing ones: the Lord is among them, in Sinai, in the holy place. Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, thou hast received gifts for man, though they were rebellious, that thou mightest dwell among them. Blessed be the Lord God, blessed be the Lord daily; and the God of our salvation shall prosper us. (Psalm 67/68:17-19)
The Psalmist is well aware of human failure and sin, but also of God’s clemency, and His action on our behalf: God both quells rebellion, and as the Victor over evil, receives gifts to shower on those who follow Him. The LORD’s purpose in appearing to His people is not to make a spectacle on the heights of Mount Sinai, but to intimately dwell among them, indeed, among humanity as a whole. (We may remember how at Sinai, when Moses received the Law, the mountain smoked and trembled: but the real purpose of God’s visitation at Sinai was to give the Hebrew people the Torah, guidelines that were meant to prepare the people for God’s deepest and most complete visitation in the God-Man’s incarnation, for the sake of Jew and Gentile. God seeks not to “wow” humans into subjection, but to walk with them yet again, as He did in Eden, before the rebellion. As the Psalmist puts it, “the God of our salvation shall prosper us.”
The Psalter knows of God’s compassionate, merciful and truthful nature. But in Jesus Christ we see this more clearly. Because he has seen the risen Lord, it is possible for the apostle Paul to fill out the glimpses of salvation given in the Psalter. To the Ephesians, he explains that if Christ truly ascended in victory, He had to also descend: His true home is with the Father, and His aim is to bring us into that communion, both by filling up our human world with His presence, and by raising us to His own glory. Listen to the verses in Ephesians, where the apostle speaks of this amazing victory march of our Lord, coming from the heights right into the depths, and then back to the heights again. He does all this so that God can bless us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, if we belong to Christ:
But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were….” (Eph 4:7-11).
Notice that the apostle understands Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension in terms of His coming to dwell with His creation, and also links these mighty acts of God with the coming of the Spirit, Who fills all things. God is not simply Victor over evil, but the Re-maker, the Re-former of His good, but fallen, creation. And, amazingly, He includes human beings in the process of reclaiming what is His own. The apostle bookends his description of Jesus’ conquest by speaking about us: that is, he begins by speaking about what God has given, and ends by listing all the gifts given to the Church: apostleship, prophecy, teaching, and other gifts as well! Everyone who is in Christ is included on the gift-list of the heavenly Conqueror: His goal in coming is not simply to enable the powerful among us, but to show compassion by coming to where the very least of His people live. He comes to the depths. And so our troparion speaks of our being freed from our sufferings or passions, which in itself would be wonderful. But it goes further: it ends by speaking of LIFE and RESURRECTION, given to us by Christ. As Saint Paul says elsewhere, “through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom 5:2). We are not simply rescued, but may hope to be completely re-created, because God has taken on everything that it is to be human, right down to our fearful knowledge of the darkness of death.
Our gospel reading for Matins, and our epistle reading for this Sunday underscore the revolution that has taken place in our world, and especially among those who belong to Christ. In John 20:19-31, the risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, giving to them a foretaste of the Spirit who will come upon the whole Church at Pentecost. Adam and Eve were given the “breath” of life; those who are in Christ Jesus share in God’s very own Spirit, enabling us to follow Christ and do what humans are meant to do in this world. The passage in John 20 speaks of the special calling of the apostles (and their successors), who can bind and lose with God’s blessing; it closes, though, by speaking of the blessing conferred upon even those of us who have not seen the risen Christ. Not all are apostles: but all who believe have been enlivened by the Holy Spirit.
And our epistle reading in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 also underscores the wonder of who we have become. Jesus replaced the Temple made by human hands, for He was the place where God fully met with humanity—the true Temple of the Holy Spirit to which the humanly-built temple only pointed. Those who are in Christ also become, astonishingly, God’s Temple, the place where God dwells, and the place where those who do not yet know Christ can see Him at work in the human world. And so in this passage, St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are (1 Cor 3:16-17).
Along with God’s gifts and our new status in Christ, then, comes a great responsibility. We must cooperate with God’s holy purposes, and do nothing to destroy or to damage the people of God. TOGETHER we are God’s temple, and thus our life together is of the utmost importance. Indeed, this togetherness includes not just the Church that we see today, but also those who have come before us (going right back to the apostles!) and those who will take on Holy Tradition after us. As we live together, it is essential that we give honor to the entire Church, across the globe, and across time and space. To give too much privilege to contemporary fads, or to our own cultural habits is not to understand what it means to be together the Temple of God. Jesus has left for us a clue as to how we honor each other—by giving up our rights, by being willing to descend to the lowest place for each other, and by honoring the weakest among us. Those who think that the Church can be improved by moving with the times, rather than by heeding the pattern of Christ and extending true honor to our brothers and sisters who came before us have not understood the complex and beautiful way in which we are called to be the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Kontakion reminds us of the continuity of God’s ways with those whom He has created. We sing these words:
Having arisen from the tomb, You raised up the dead and resurrected Adam. Eve also dances at Your Resurrection, and the ends of the world celebrate Your arising from the dead, O Greatly-merciful One.
Yes, Christ raised the dead, giving joy both to Adam, the first human being, and to Eve, who dances in exultation. What Christ has done affects everyone, going right back to both of our first parents, and enlivening the globe “to the end of the world.” The Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus were not God’s plan B, but were always in God’s mind. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was foretold long before Pentecost. God always intended to give Himself fully to humankind, for He is the philanthropic God who aims to bring us to Himself, and to make us like Himself (if we will let Him!)
As we celebrate, yet again, the victory of the Lord’s Day—that is, the Resurrection — let us allow ourselves to be awe-struck by its huge scope. God’s hand reaches back to the very beginning, and forward to the final Day of resurrection; it reaches across to every nation, and every person, both small and great. The One who ascended is that same One who descended right to the heart of the earth—and He did all this to give gifts, especially the gift of Himself, to us! As St. Irenaeus put it, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the two hands of God, bringing us to Himself. For He is the Greatly-Merciful One!