Death, redeemed or destroyed? Did Easter provide a path around the grave or life through the grave? What are we to make of death in light of Easter Sundy?
On Easter Sunday we celebrated the triumphant resurrection of the Son of God, in particular his victory over death; the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). This, Christ did, not by cheating death, but by going down to its darkest depth. Christ knew that the grain of wheat, first, had to fall into the ground and die, before it can bear fruit (John. 12:24). Christ had to meet us where we are; He had to die our human death in order to make us partakers of the divine life.
This being the basic story of Easter, the temptation is to imagine that Easter abolished death; hence there is no place for it in Christian vocabulary. It is tempting to preach that Christ died so we do not have to die, as if Easter promises ‘life’ in isolation from death. As attractive as this maybe, yet it is not what Easter promises. A correct understanding of Easter does not suggest abolishment of death but – its redemption.
The Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky makes the argument that,
‘The Resurrection operates a change in fallen nature, opens a prodigious possibility: the possibility of sanctifying death itself. Hence, death is no longer an impress, but a door to the Kingdom.’
So, how is death sanctified?
In Easter, death was transformed, brought to subjection to the rule of Christ. Death, the murderer of life became the bearer of Life. Death became the preacher of ‘the divine Life’, which it could not extinguish. Without Easter, death and life are two irreconcilable opposites; if one is the beginning the other is the end. Or, in the language of the psalmist, if life is to be ‘the flower of the field’, then death is the ‘wind that passes over it,’ making the flower wither into the pit of ‘no more’ (Ps.103.15-16). However, Easter changed that reality, creating a partnership between the two opposites and assigned death a central place.
If this is true then it will have a number of implications for our perception of the notion of death in the light of Easter:
- The connection means that, we need to embrace Christ’s death in order to share his resurrection. We are baptized, not simply into the life of Christ, but first into his death (Rom. 6:3). It is in his death that we inherit his life. Death is no longer simply the end, rather the beginning of new life. In Easter, the tomb is transformed into a womb, giving birth to children of light.This is clearly articulated by St. Ignatius, who sees true life in death. In his way to martyrdom he writes to the Roman church imploring them not to interfere with his coming trial, by attempting to keep him alive.
‘Indulge me, brothers: do not keep me from living; do not desire me to die. Do not give the world one who wants to belong to God…Let me receive the pure light; when I arrive there I shall be a man.’
St. Ignatius sees death as his birth into life, where with the resurrected Christ he will experience true life, and true humanity. This does not mean that Christian life only begins after the grave, rather it means that true life begin as we are baptised into Christ, and its full realisation blossoms out of the grave.
- Easter calls us to explore the death we are baptized into. In baptism, we are (literally) baptized into the death of Christ; hence, we are to workout our salvation in the death we received in baptism. It means that Lent and Passiontide become an integral part of Easter. We are to carry our cross, die to ourselves in order to live for Christ (Matt. 16:24-25, Gal. 6:14). We are not to seek a way around the Cross, but to embrace it and look to it as the way of life (Rom. 8:13; Col 3.5).
- If ‘true life and true humanity’, as St. Ignatius suggests, is different from what we now define as life; then it necessarily follows that Easter falsifies all definitions of life which is not grounded in Jesus Christ. Without redeemed death, Easter will play into current culture’s shallow definition/s of life. Where the Resurrection distortedly functions to reassure people that death is but a small interruption, soon it will be over and you will resume life as you have always known it (A fashionable notion repeatedly heard in funerals).
The biblical Easter, on the other hand, will open our eyes to the tragic reality of death; a death began at our birth, which deprives us from true life. A life, only the Risen Lord can give when we are baptized into his death.
“Yesterday I was crucified with Christ; today I am glorified with Him. Yesterday I was dead with Christ; today I am sharing in his resurrection. Yesterday I was buried with him; today I am walking with him from the sleep of death.’ St. Gregory of Nazianzus