Monday, April 12, 2010

Surprised by Joy! - Beholding Christ on the First and Eighth Day

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Pascha - The Ninth Day

I could not help but notice how few persons were in the church at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy yesterday morning for the Second Sunday of Pascha. If I further eliminated about seven of my XU students who filled the back rows, it would have been that much thinner. If overly dwelt upon, the contrast with the "packed church" for the midnight paschal Matins and Liturgy was rather deflating. What a change in only a week's time! Although, even then, many worshipers "disappeared" before the end of the Liturgy for Pascha. Why do people leave the great paschal Liturgy? Are they simply tired or are they restless? Are they going home or to a premature paschal celebration elsewhere? Are people only attracted to the paschal procession and perhaps hearing "Christ is Risen!" in their native language, only to lose their attention once the initial "excitement" wears off? Why do Orthodox Christians leave before receiving the Eucharist at the paschal Liturgy? These remain baffling questions to this day. However, returning to the noticeably small gathering at yesterday's Liturgy (though the church did "fill up" relatively well as the Liturgy went on), I had to overcome the temptation to think that perhaps some parishioners were "taking the Sunday off" after celebrating Pascha the week before. If and when that happens, Pascha is reduced to being "Easter Sunday" and a one-day event. But again, that could only be a bad temptation to think such a thing. There must have been other reasons for a good many parishioners to have been absent yesterday.

For those who were here and worshiping the Risen Lord in what is at least potentially the fresh atmosphere of the paschal season, we heard St. John the Evangelist describe the meaning and purpose of the Gospel that he had written:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (JN. 20:30-31)

This "belief" can introduce the believer into the authentic, qualitatively deeper and grace-filled life (zoe) that only Christ can offer. Jesus can offer this life as a gift for He is both the Christ and the Son of God. St. John's gospel is thus the proclamation of the Gospel, and not simply a record of the words and deeds of Jesus. And that Gospel is an inexhaustible mystery.

This came after St. John recorded the appearance of the Risen Lord to His disciples in Jerusalem on the "first day of the week" - the "Lord's Day," or our Sunday. This was the "third day" on which Christ was raised from the dead the day after the Sabbath - and the day that has become the prototype and "chosen day" for Christian worship to the present day. The disciples recognized that it was Christ. "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord." (JN. 20:20) That laconic verse has to be the Bible's greatest example of understatement! Surely, the nature of that gladness must be practically incomprehensible to us; unless, of course, we experience the same gladness when "beholding" the Risen Lord through the eyes of our faith. When the absent Thomas was present "eight days later" he was transformed from unbelief to belief. (The "eighth day" is another way that Christians alluded to Sunday). He is thus one of many biblical prototypes of human persons who undergo a profound change that brings them from the darkness of doubt into the light of belief. And his "confession of faith" when beholding the Crucified and Risen Lord, bearing "the print of the nails" and the "mark of the nails" (JN. 20:25, 27) - "my Lord and my God" (v. 28) - remains one of the most striking confessions of faith in Christ in the entire New Testament. To this day we reproduce that very confession of faith when we "see" and worship the Lord on the first and eighth day of the week.

The Sundays of Pascha are the perfect balance and complement to the Sundays of Great Lent. Let us embrace these Sundays with the gladness of genuine disciples who are always "surprised by joy" when encountering our Risen Lord.

Fr. Steven

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