Let’s Get Out of This Place

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.

 

 

 

 

18 comments:

  1. Dear Father Freeman,
    Thank you for sharing that very beautiful passages from Melitos. I recently listened to a series of talks given by Father John Behr as part of an Advent Retreat for the Little Portion Community in Arkansas. One of the talks focused on St Melitos and his relation to St. John the Theologian. Very good series of talks and well worth the time to listen to them.

  2. One of the things that has always struck me about the Orthodox presentation is the intelligence of “hell”. It is not just a place or force or a void but anthropomorphic. Reminiscent in some ways of Job. Why is this?

  3. “I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

    Oh Amen! All glory, honor and majesty to Him!

    Father, thank you. I especially like the analogy of a prison break where all the prisoners are set free.
    Prior to Christ opening up the Gates, all of humanity was imprisoned. …me, the people next to me, and the criminal who might get away with their crime.
    Then comes “The Christ”; The Son of God, The Holy One, The Almighty, The King, The Master, The Shepard, The Healer, The Giver of Life, The Savior of the World, Our Redeemer – trampling down Death, and set the prisoners free. The prisoners who were all accused by the Accuser, that is, until he had to contend with Christ.
    If the Accuser has to contend with Christ, why would we do the very same thing by accusing another fellow prisoner of a ‘worse’ crime? Whose ground would we then stand on? Who is keeping tabs? And for whom did Christ die and resurrect ?
    You are right, Father. I would do well to look at the beauty and majesty of Christ…just look at Him, contemplate, if I can, this Jesus. And as well, look at myself, without taking my eyes off of Him. How can I possibly long for the condemnation of another who was born in sin, just as I? How can I dwell on such things, and risk the dimming of His face?
    It is one thing to get angry at another who causes harm. It is another to long for their punishment to fit the crime. We’d all burn, for that matter.

    Well, thank you Father Stephen. I appreciate how you state things so positively. I tend to accentuate the folly of the negative. Only to contrast it in a great way to the Glory of our Lord Jesus. But words couldn’t even begin to touch His wonder – the Uncircumscribed (yet another word!).
    So we receive joy in ever thinking, talking, writing, proclaiming His wonder!

  4. I believe this is why Our Lord and Lover of Manking has allowed that I find Orthodox Christian worship before I pass from this life: “In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.”
    — my father being truly psychotic and diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and at one point (and that’s all it took) extremely violent, and I am my father’s biological child; however, the Sweetest Lord Jesus and Lover of Mankind allows me to see His Love for me and allow me to pray for all my family and to forgive them. This has taken almost 50 years, Fr. Stephen, and I have been Orthodox Christian for only the last 15 years of them. God bless you for writing this blog post! (It also immediately reminded me of the Animals song, We Gotta Get Out of This Place — hope that’s not a bad thing for you, it wasn’t for me)

  5. Hi Margaret, thank you for your story. It moved me. I also, along with so many others I know about, have only recently somewhat “gotten out of this place” through good fortune… no, not fortune . . . through the blessing of having been introduced to Eastern Christianity and to have a church where we can experience it fully. ( And meet persons there like you, Father Stephen, and the community here. I benefit so much the presence and encouragement of others.)

  6. We really enjoyed Lazarus Sat. and Sun., even tho’ we were unable to attend church, and your article, too, Fr. Stephen.
    However, there is a problem with the common mindset of our day that now considers law breakers and mentally ill people “victims,” allowing blame to be directed away from them to others, while their victims often go unavenged by the law with due justice. –This does not mean that I wish hell or damnation on anyone.
    To make excuses for lawbreakers, saying they turned out a certain way, or did wickedly because of how they were treated would be like saying those who abused them must have been victims, too. This is just like Adam and Eve, who pointed blame away from themselves to another for their own acts of disobedience.
    If law breakers are “victims,” why are they doing time? One reason people are so lawless is because laws today are too lenient for some crimes, and people are not afraid to do evil. (And I realize the justice system is very complicated, and justice is not always justly executed.)
    But if we say criminals are like they are because of what has been done to them and therefore are not wholly to blame, that seems to indicate we are justified in breaking the 2nd Great Commandment. One bad deed does not justify another, i.e., being abused does not justify breaking the law, stealing, harming others, or any lawless act/crime.
    Some of the most noble and productive people have gone through the greatest trials and hardships, including being abused. Hardships often build our characters. Many young men with very abusive fathers, for one example, have turned out mild mannered, honest, and hardworking, loathing the thought of treating others as they have been treated. And others, who have been abandoned by their fathers, worked hard to support their mothers & siblings. Many today have not learned to give sacrificially, to be thankful, to forgive, or to fear God.

    We will give an account of what we ourselves have done in our bodies, and we won’t be able to blame it on what someone else did to us. That will never justify evildoing. People should be tried for the lawless act(s) they’ve committed, not how they were abused in life. Like St James tells us, (1:14:), Every man is tempted, when he is led away of his own lust, and enticed.
    Yes, we should pity those with dreadful backgrounds and abuses, but sin and sinful acts must be faced honestly. Repentance leads to forgiveness and eternal life, not blame or excuses (of victimization).
    I know this was not the theme of your article, but since it was mentioned, I tho’t to comment.
    God is very good, and loveth mankind, and will forgive every sin, that is certain! All glory to Him!

    Rhoda

  7. Rhoda,
    I must respectfully disagree with you. My thoughts concerning the nature of human wrong-doing is not shaped by any modern philosophy or political theory, but by the Fathers, the Scriptures, and 40 years of pastoral experience. “Every man is tempted, when he is led away of his own lust, enticed.” I’ve crawled around in the souls of wrong-doing for nearly 2/3 of my lifetime – reflecting on how people come to do what they do. If it were as simple as you’ve described, it would pretty much be cut-and-dried and boring. But, what you describe simply does not match at all what I have seen and understood.

    Yes, one victim, points back to another victim, etc., all the way to the beginning. In the Church, it is called “ancestral sin.” It is not that any of us are exonerated – because, frankly, sin is not a legal problem. I know you are relatively new to my writings, but I’ve written extensively on this topic. Here is one article. The question is not legal – that someone needs to “pay” for their crime. There actually is no such thing as paying for a crime. No amount of punishment undoes the damage of the crime.

    I get the impression that you think American prisons are a form of leniency. They are hell, pure and simple. They rarely cure anybody of anything, and they certainly do not establish justice. I’ve had 2 members of my family murdered over the years, so I’m no stranger to the impact of crime. But neither do I think that the killers of my family were some sort of tabla rasa, making an unsullied choice to do evil. It’s ever so much more complicated than that.

    That we are ourselves victims does not exhonerate – it only explains. What cannot be explained, however, are those who are abused (for example), and yet turn out not to be abusers. But I’ve known quite a few such persons and see them as miracles of grace. Often, the outward conduct hides the hell that they carry around in their souls. No one escapes abuse uninjured.

    The judgment of Christ will not be measured in punishment, or people paying for their crimes. Nowhere in the entire NT is Christ described as “paying” for our sins. It is not the language of Scripture. Christ has come to heal us – including the very worst of us. If you have been able to repent of your sins, then it is no credit to you – but to the grace of God at work in you.

    You might try using the search box on the front page of the blog for the term “legal”. It will turn up a large number of articles that might be of interest.

  8. Thank you for your reply, Fr Stephen.
    I tho’t you might take me wrongly. If I wrote everything to explain myself to your satisfaction it would take to far too long, and then, perhaps, come across like I am “correcting you” or being proud over my own “opinions., or maybe even being a “troll.” That’s often how I’m taken. I mentioned the judicial law because many violent criminals now spend years in psych examinations trying to determine why they committed the heinous crimes they have, etc. It can take years before they are actually tried as “victims”. . . . Society is soft on truth and unfortunately many Christians embrace the same mindset. . . .
    I try to keep my comments here brief and to the point without lengthy explanations.
    I won’t labour the point here. I don’t disagree with you or the Church Fathers. What you wrote in your article is exactly what we all need: the glorious, wonderful, inexpressibly good and kind Lord Jesus Christ and Redeemer of the world.
    I am very close to your age (so you won’t consider me a greenhorn”). I have lived through much suffering being orphaned through a terrible tragedy, lived with constant changes & insecurties, no parents, and no place to call home throughout my life; I have suffered greatly as a Christian, as well.
    I am not ignorant of the infinite glory and goodness of God nor of the depths of misery of mankind. I regret that you don’t accept my comments as worthy of notice. But that’s okay.
    I actually appreciate your writings. I first “saw” you giving a lecture in San Fransico (online), which I greatly enjoyed and shared with my family and a few protestant acquaintances.
    Blessings in Christ, Rhoda

  9. Rhoda,
    It is not that I do not accept your comments as worthy of notice – it’s that I disagreed with them. That’s not a matter of worthiness. If your observations were correct – then much of my entire article would simply be wrong. I tried to disagree politely.

  10. You can pick my words, ntl, each person living will give an account of themselves to God–no excuses, no blaming on being victimized.

    ~r

  11. Rhoda,
    Of course. I did not mean to suggest that we are not accountable. Simply that it’s frequently very complicated – so much so – that we are told not to judge. None of us can see the hidden things of the heart – what might be excused (for there are things that we can do very little about) – and what might not be excused.

    I write for a very large audience – some of whom are very broken people – some of whom are clinging by the tiniest hope. I tend to react strongly to comments that might cause them to despair. I’m protective in that way. I assume that the strong don’t need much advice and rarely seem to accept it when given. Others need encouragement.

    There will be no need for excuses on that Day. Those things that can be excused will not even be brought up to us by God. However, we might be quite surprised to discover what constitutes the list of things that He will consider important.

    The American jurisprudence system is among the most dysfunctional systems in the world. Our prison population is pretty much the largest per capita anywhere. Our prisons are abominable. But – if it were a perfect system in terms of punishment – it would mean very little. Punishment does not accomplish anything. If punishment was effective – there would be evidence. All the evidence points in the other direction. Nonetheless, we have to have safety in society and so we incarcerate. However, our system is so bad, that instead of keeping us safe, it largely succeeds only in creating a criminal underclass. I don’t find our culture to be a good example for Christians to draw from.

  12. Rhoda,
    It seems to me that you have particular thoughts about the notion of being a “victim” and how that concept might be used and misused in our culture. I understand that. I’m suggesting, however, that when we think of the human soul, and how we get to be the way we are, there is always some amount of “victim” in everyone. The various injuries done to us – some more some less – have an effect.

    Those injuries do not create an excuse – indeed, I do not think we’ll be confronted about such things. Rather, it is something for the rest of us to bear in mind when we try to understand others. This, in my experience, has been very important in my role as a confessor. Not just what someone has done, by why they do it. A confessor is a “doctor of the soul” and not just a dispenser of legal forgiveness. A doctor has to think about causes and not just symptoms. The injuries we suffer (as victims) play a role in what we do or do not do. Not all of the role or the only role.

    There is a segment in our society that has completely abused the notion of victimhood – which is tragic. I am not using the term in the manner of that group.

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