Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gazing into the Empty Tomb

Dear Parish Faithful,


Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise,
brighter than any royal chamber: 
Thy tomb, O Christ, is the fountain of our resurrection.
(Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)

The “empty tomb” has been a point of endless discussion and debate among biblical scholars for quite some time now.  The issue is not simply one of whether or not the tomb of Jesus was indeed empty when the myrrhbearing women discovered it on “the first day of the week.”  And, if it was empty, then why was it empty?  Those are theological or “faith” questions and claims that determine the difference between “believers” and “non-believers” based on how one may answer those questions. Rather, some biblical scholars who study the New Testament evidence concerning the resurrection of Christ challenge the very reliability of the empty tomb narratives in the canonical Gospels.  These very scholars  even going so far as to claim these narratives are basically imaginative reconstructions, for apologetic purposes, composed by the evangelists.  In other words, the empty tomb narratives are not conveying to us an actual record of events; but they are actually later inventions that are used to strengthen the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  This is often called “historicized theology.”

In responding to these skeptical charges, many excellent biblical scholars have carefully demonstrated the reliability of these narratives with detailed and sophisticated arguments that skillfully and convincingly defend the solid historical nature of these narratives.  The haunting simplicity of these narratives; the fact that they are “unadorned” with claims of fulfilled biblical prophecy or theological embellishment; the discovery of the empty tomb by women disciples whose testimony was not binding in first century Judaism; the fact that living disciples of Christ could have refuted any invented stories; the integrity of the evangelists(!).  All of these combine to strongly support the historicity of the empty tomb narratives. As Gerald O’Collins summarizing in his book, Believing in the Resurrection:

The more we detect such a simplicity that derives from the origins of Christianity, the less plausible we find the theory that the discovery of the empty tomb was not an historical event but merely a later creation, a fictional scenario coming from the evangelist Mark.  (p. 83)

And very telling is the conclusion reached by one of the world’s great “Jesus scholars,” Geza Vermes, a scholar who does not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead:

When every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike – and even perhaps of the disciples themselves – are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact:  namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation not a body but an empty tomb.

Regardless of how interested or not one may be by endless discussions and debates among biblical scholars today, what is of interest to us is how integral a part the empty tomb has played within the Orthodox Christian liturgical, hymnographic, iconographic, and theological Tradition ever since the “beginnings” of the proclamation of the Gospel.  At the Liturgy yesterday, on St. Thomas Sunday, we sang in the troparion:  From the sealed tomb, Thou didst shine forth, O Life!  The discovery of the empty tomb by the myrrhbearing women is a theme constantly brought to remembrance during the paschal season and beyond within the Church’s hymnography:

Before the dawn, Mary and the women came and found the stone rolled away from the tomb. They heard the angelic voice:  “Why do you seek among the dead as a man the One who is everlasting light?  Behold the clothes in the grave!  Go and proclaim to the world:  The Lord is risen!  He has slain death, as He is the Son of God, saving the race of men.”  (Hypakoe of Pascha)
When the women disciples of the Lord learned from the angel the joyous message of Thy Resurrection; they cast away the ancestral curse and elatedly told the apostles:  Death is overthrown!  Christ God is risen, granting the world great mercy.  (Resurrectional troparion, tone 4)

The empty tomb was the great “sign” that something mysterious occurred following the death and burial of Jesus of Nazareth.  And this sign found its proper interpretation when the Risen Lord appeared to His female and male disciples – in that order.  The tomb was empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead!  Christians do not believe in the  empty tomb, but in the Risen Lord.  But Christians cannot believe in the Risen Lord if the tomb was not found to be empty.  The empty tomb may be a “secondary” sign of the resurrection, but it is essential to the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  The empty tomb reveals that it is a fully embodied life – and not a disembodied life – that is the ultimate goal of a glorified life in the presence of God.  This is one of many reasons why all four evangelists include accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb as climactic points of their respective Gospels.

In a section of his book, Believing in the Resurrection, entitled “The Sign of the Tomb,” Gerald O’Collins eloquently comments on the significance of this great sign:

First, in the New Testament the empty tomb stood for a return from the dead and all that such a return implied.  The burial of people signified that they were removed from the land of the living and had fallen into the power of death …

Where tombs express the finality and irrevocable loss of death, Jesus’ open and empty tomb symbolized the fullness of the new and everlasting life into which he had risen.  Here the emptiness of the tomb, paradoxically, indicated the fullness of life into which the risen Jesus had entered.  Graves naturally suggest the quiet decay of an existence dissolved by death.  The empty tomb of Jesus symbolized the opposite, the complete life that had overcome the silence of death.

Second, the emptiness of Jesus’ grave reflects the holiness of what it once held:  the corpse of the incarnate  Son of God, who lived totally for others and died to bring a new covenant of love for all people.  This ‘Holy One’ could not “experience corruption”  (ACTS 2:27)

Third … God did not discard Jesus’ corpse but mysteriously raised and transfigured it, so as to reveal what lies ahead for human beings and their world.  In short, the empty tomb in Jerusalem forms God’s radical sign that redemption is not an escape to a better world but a wonderful transformation of this world.  Seen that way, the open and empty tomb of Jesus is highly significant for anyone who want to appreciate what redemption means.  (p. 94-95)

As others engage in the debate over the empty tomb, let us with a living faith gaze into that empty tomb as did the myrrhbearing women and some of the disciples and “hear” the voice of the angelic proclamation:  “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him”  (MK. 16:6).


Friday, April 20, 2012

The Appearances of the Risen Jesus

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


On this Bright Friday, I would again like to turn to and draw from a current book I am reading – Believing in the Resurrection – by the biblical scholar Gerald O’Collins, renowned for his tireless commitment over the years of studying the resurrection of Christ in a nearly exhaustive manner. The third chapter of this most recent and admirable study is entitled “The Appearances of the Risen Jesus.” This chapter is meant to explore the reliability and meaning of the many appearances of the Risen Christ to various of His disciples. O’Collins also lists and critiques the usual objections to these appearances of Christ. For the moment, I would simply like to share his carefully constructed list of these appearances “to groups and individuals:”

  • To “the twelve” (I COR. 15:3)
  • To “the eleven and those with them” (LK. 24:33-49)
  • To “those who came up with him [Jesus] from Galilee” (ACTS 13:31)
  • To “the disciples” (JN. 20:19-23; MK. 16:7)
  • To “all the apostles” (I COR. 15:7; obviously in Paul’s list a distinct and larger group than the Twelve)
  • To Simon Peter and six others (JN. 21:1-14)
  • To “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” (I COR. 15:6)
  • To Cleopas and his companion (LK. 24:13-35)
  • To Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (MATT. 28:9-10)
  • To Mary Magdalene (JN. 20:11-18; MK. 16:9-11)
  • To Cephas/Peter (I COR. 15:5; MK. 16:7; LK. 24:34)
  • To James (I COR. 15:7)
  • To Saul/Paul (for example, I COR. 9:1; 15:8; ACTS 9:1-9) (p. 61)

What is quite interesting, is that when O’Collins addresses the skeptical counter-theories that attempt to discredit the testimony of these appearance of the Risen Lord, he makes the telling point that these skeptical theories invariably do not address the multiplicity and variety of these appearances. In other words, the “hallucinations” theory hardly takes into account the various persons involved; the various settings; and even the chronological factor (Paul comes a few years later than the Twelve).

I would simply propose that each of us can turn this into an effective and illuminating “home Bible Study” – alone or with other family members. In other words, find these various scriptural passages and read them carefully so as to discover the wider context of each of the Lord’s appearances – in Galilee, Jerusalem, indoors, outdoors, etc. What seems to be purpose of each appearance? Is it to convey a commission, to call to mission, to reveal something of the mysterious nature of the resurrection, to re-establish a profound sense of fellowship and communion, to convince others that it is Jesus Himself, to overcome any doubts, etc. This kind of careful and prayerful study can be deeply rewarding. It will lead us to ask questions of our own relationship with Christ. What do these passages convey to us today, in the daily setting of my life “here and now?”

Just as the paschal season is not an “appendix” or afterthought to Great Lent and Holy Week; so the resurrection of Christ is not the “happy ending” to the pathos and drama of the Cross. The Resurrection is the fulfillment of the entire economy of the Son; for the Son of God came to overcome the “last enemy” – death – on our behalf. The resurrection narratives have a different quality to them – they are without precedent! – and yet it is the reality and life that permeates these accounts and the entire New Testament that are the very basis of our Faith. Without the resurrection there would be no New Testament to even speak about – just as there would be no Church or even no memory of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is something worthy of those precious commodities of ours – time and energy.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Historicity of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


I always choose a good book or two about the Resurrection of Christ to read during the paschal season. The one that I have already started this week is by Gerald O’Collins, a Jesuit scholar, who has been carefully studying and writing about the resurrection for many years now. His newest book is entitled Believing in the Resurrection – The Meaning and Promise of the Risen Jesus. It promises to be an excellent book and a thorough study by a premiere biblical scholar. In addition to his own careful analysis of the biblical evidence, O’Collins also surveys and critiques the most significant works that have been published in the last ten years or so from scholars on the “resurrection question/debate” in the New Testament. The author has emerged over the years as one of the most renowned defenders of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Any other conclusion for O’Collins is a betrayal of the evidence – and a betrayal of the Christian Gospel. As both a scholar and a man of Christian faith, he very steadily and thoroughly builds up an impressive case for that claim, and for the centrality and reliability of the New Testament data concerning the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Yet, O’Collins goes beyond a defense of the historicity of the resurrection accounts, and wants to further elaborate on what the resurrection means for our own human destiny – a destiny that the New Testament reveals as the “resurrection of the dead” - and for the sacramental and ethical life of Christian believers. The risen Jesus is present, and this presence is confirmed and convincingly conveyed by the simultaneous presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the resurrection is first about Jesus; but then it is about us, His followers and disciples, and the relationship we create with Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, and the “life” that we have in His Name.

Hopefully, I will be able to share a few summaries of his rich biblical exegesis over the paschal season on these inter-related themes of such great importance for Christian faith. The Preface opens with an intriguing question:

Is Jesus merely a great but dead hero, or is he a risen, living presence? That troubling question of enormous significance has been around for two thousand years. (p. v)

O’Collins then summarizes the startling and radical claims made by Christians from the very dawn of the Christian movement up to the present day. These powerful claims emerge from the earliest certainty that Jesus had been bodily raised from death:

Christians claim that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead and remains powerfully present in our world – a claim that deserves serious attention from any thoughtful person. If we accept this claim as true, it should radically change the way we live our lives as well as the hopes that we entertain for ourselves and for our world. We are not destined at death to lose consciousness forever and return our bodies to the pool of cosmic matter. The resurrection promises us a glorious personal future beyond this life, a future that, in “a new heaven and a new earth” (REV. 21:1), will bring a radical transformation not only for our bodily existence but also for our material world.

But we can never forget the “scandal” of those claims based upon the “dead end” of Christ’s public ministry:

This is an extraordinary claim and an extraordinary promise, both centered on someone who died as a criminal on a cross, abandoned by nearly all of his followers, and seemingly abandoned by the God whose kingdom he had preached. (p. v)

Christians must never forget that they believe that a crucified Jew is the Savior of the world, now “seated” as Lord “at the right hand of God!” O’Collins further summarizes this seismic shift in the perception of who Jesus actually is, as it occurred in a such a relatively short space of time within the earlier years of the Church:

Thus, faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead had a dramatic aftermath. It prompted a remarkable account of him as the divine Lord of the entire universe. Remember that the life and death of Jesus had occurred no more than twenty years before Paul, the First Christian writer, began composing and sending his letters. It was startling to maintain that someone of such very recent memory was now “sitting” on the divine throne and reigning over the world “at the right hand” of God. (p. vi)

From within the Church, we need not “prove” the resurrection of Christ, or convince each other of its truthfulness. This is our belief, and we hope a part of our experience from within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church. But since every basic claim made about Christ is challenged, rejected or mocked – often enough by self-designated Christians! - in the current climate of post-modern relativism and skepticism, it is good to witness a spirited and well-informed refutation of those contemporary “heresies” by faithful scholars offering a “defense” for the hope that is in us (I PET. 3:15) Orthodox Christians need to be grateful to such scholars as Gerald O’Collins who intelligently and eloquently meet those challenges on behalf of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (JUDE 3) And the very basis of that faith is that Jesus has been raised from the dead.



Monday, April 16, 2012

To Keep and Observe Pascha

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Behold the desirable and saving feast has come to us – the day of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the foundation of peace, the occasion for reconciliation, the cessation of battles, the end of death, the victory over the Devil. — St. John Chrysostom

I greet you in the Name of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ on this Monday of Bright Week!

Pascha is certainly the most glorious and extended of the Church’s Feasts. It is the “Feast of Feasts” and “Holy Day of Holy Days,” because it celebrates and actualizes the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In one of the beautiful moments of the paschal Matins we solemnly sing three times:

Jesus is risen from the tomb as He foretold, granting us eternal life and great mercy!

Just think of that text and what it means and implies for more than a moment! However, in our hyper-secularized and hectically-paced society, there is a real threat that Pascha, as an observed Feast, is subject to that almost dismissive aphorism: “One and done!” This is clearly the fate of the Easter celebration as it comes and goes within today’s world. There is Easter Sunday and then there is … nothing - or at least nothing much. A one-day affair that embraces everything from sunrise services to Easter bunnies, followed by a rapid disappearance of any real signs of Easter. Yet, before we as Orthodox succumb to a certain triumphalism about our extended paschal celebration, we can take a sober look at how quickly Pascha is eclipsed within our own concrete local situation within a period of time of less than twenty-four hours: Think of how many worshippers are in the church for the midnight paschal procession; then how many remain until the end of the Liturgy; and how many return to church for the Vespers of Pascha – this diminution all occurs on “Easter Sunday” right before our eyes! Again, all in less than twenty-four hours.

As we begin to return to the rhythms of life and the inevitable and insistent demands of life – and deal with sheer exhaustion – we can leave Pascha far behind us in spirit. As Orthodox, we are no longer immune from the “one and done” syndrome of contemporary life. Yet, we can accept this as a good healthy challenge. Every victory is preceded by a battle. And, as all challenges to our ecclesial life, the Church – as a nourishing Mother - is our great “support system.” For the Church does not “forget” that it is Pascha and that it will remain so for the forty days until Ascension. Wherever you may be – or not be – in terms of the paschal spirit, when you come to church you will hear the paschal troparion of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” The Liturgy will resound with the uplifting “The Angel Cried!” as the designated Hymn to the Theotokos. And the paschal greeting and exchange at the Cross and among parishioners will continue to reverberate: “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” The Church will continue to awaken us from our post-paschal slumber, and revive us from the paschal blues that are summarized in that dreadful phrase of “one and done!”

Another real threat is to “become indolent” because Great Lent is over. As we all know and experience, feasting can quickly get out of hand. And any good sense of lenten discipline and healthy restraint can disappear virtually overnight. In one of his many and glorious paschal homilies, St. John Chrysostom in the fourth c. was well aware of this threat. He offers encouragement and a realistic assessment of human nature in pastorally addressing this issue:

Neither, because the fast has passed, should we become indolent. To the contrary, now more than ever let us show more care for our soul so that it will not become weak because our body is growing fat – something which is comparable to looking after the slave but neglecting the mistress. Tell me! How do we benefit by going beyond the measure or by surpassing what is necessary? That injures the body and betrays the nobility of the soul. Let us be satisfied with whatever is necessary for the soul and the body, so that we do not throw to the wind whatever was gathered during the fast. Let no one think that I am against the enjoyment of food and relaxation. I am not hindering you. I am simply advising that it be done in measure. Limit the food and do not excel these limitations, otherwise you destroy the health of our soul. He who goes beyond the limits will not feel any satisfaction. This is known to all who have experience in these matters. They suffered a variety of illnesses and a great amount of discomfort. I am certain that you will be convinced by my advice, for I know how obedient you are. (St. John Chrysostom, On Holy Pascha, from The True Vine, No. 16, 1993)

Sound and sober advise from the great saint. My own experience and pastoral observations now tell me that it is far more difficult to “keep and observe Pascha” than it is to “keep and observe Lent.” But I again stress that this is a wonderful challenge because Pascha is the very content of our faith and who we are as Christians. It is the most joyous season of the liturgical year for those who believe in the Resurrection of Christ. For as St. John continued in his paschal homily:

We all rejoice, exult, and leap with joy. Even though it is our Master Christ who conquered and set up the trophy, we all share in common the joy and happiness.



Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Looking Ahead to Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Dear Parish Faithful,

O ye faithful, let us prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday, joyfully observing the forefeast from this present day onwards, that we may be counted worthy to see the lifegiving Passion.
(Monday of the Sixth Week, Second Canon, Ode One)

We are entering the sixth and final week of Great Lent. Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday are now before us on the upcoming weekend. These are two magnificent feasts that anticipate so much of what we look forward to in Pascha – the Lordship of Christ and victory over death.

Yet, due to our calendar differences with other churches, this weekend will also be the “Western Easter” on April 8. This is not the Orthodox Pascha, and so our loyalties and commitments are to the paschal cycle as it exists within the Church. However, the obviousness of that statement may not be that straightforward for some of you. For you may also have family loyalties and commitments that must be accounted for, due to close family members who are not Orthodox. If such family members are close by, and if such family members celebrate Easter this Sunday and expect you to join them, then participating in their celebration is understandable. I would certainly not counsel that you make a point of only celebrating the “real Pascha” by ignoring your non-Orthodox family members, and staining your relationships in the process. A charitable spirit toward the sensibilities of others as occasions arise is essential for the Christian, so that we live by the “spirit of the law,”and not simply the “letter of the law.”