Friday, May 2, 2008


Dear Parish Faithful,


Recently, there has been a great deal of controversy generated over one of our aspiring presidential candidate's use of the word "bitter." The use of this word and its context and implications have been intensely scrutinized, analyzed, debated, argued over and even apologized for, if I am not mistaken. You will be relieved to know that I have no intention of adding one more word to this current debate. But what struck me quite forcefully, is the use of the word "embittered" in the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom read near the end of the paschal matins. Everyone in the Church knows this remarkable homily and the proclamation of paschal joy emenating from every single phrase of this perfectly structured work. The theological meaning of this word (em)bitter has a much more powerful meaning than it has in its social or political application. Or, at least I believe that Christian believers in Christ as the Victor over sin and death would agree with that. Here, once again, is the portion of the homily in which we hear again and again about the embitterment of the adversary of Christ:

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 Thee 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 thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory ...

The homily "piles it on" in a deeply satisfying crescendo of phrases that reveal various aspects of this embitterment of Hell. I am sure that no one will "complain" that "Hell" is said to be so "embittered!" We are glad of this and we rejoice. What St. Paul calls the "final enemy" - death - has been overthrown by the Death of the Deathless Lord. Hell - though the more exact term is the biblical hades/sheol - is somewhat personified in this homily for the sake of the dramatic impact of what is being revealed to have happened in and through the death of Christ and His descent into the abyss of death.

To further emphasize the power of what is being revealed, the homily now states the "positive" reason for this embitterment of Hell that captures the paschal celebration in a further crescendo of powerful affirmations:

Christ is risen, and thou art 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.

I suppose that the only controversy that the use of this word (em)bitter would generate would be between believers and non-believers over the truthfulness of the claims beng made. For those of us who believe, no reason to get angry or judgmental. By leading lives that witness to the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst, we would be making the most convincing response of all.


Fr. Steven

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