The spirit of death has weighed upon us heavily for a long time now. I don’t mean only the past month of renewed war in Europe, or the past two years of the pandemic, but for all of human history. The more than two thousand Easters since the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ according to the flesh have always found us in a moment of trial and distress, some deeper and seemingly more desperate than others. Even at the first Easter, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb “when it was still dark,” torn by grief and unaware of the Lord’s victory.
Yet, precisely in the midst of death, the Lord triumphs.
The worship of the Church displays the full drama of this seeming contradiction in its hymnody. The Easter sequence for the Latin Church sings “death and life contended in a spectacular battle. The dead leader of life reigns alive!” The Easter troparion for the Byzantine Churches proclaims “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling death, and to those in the tombs granting life!” An ancient homily for Holy Saturday, imagining Christ’s visit to bring salvation to the righteous people of the Old Testament, describes him carrying “his victorious weapon, his cross.” Not only does Christ conquer death in triumph, not only does his light shine in the darkness of mortality, but he conquers precisely by death itself. Precisely because he has passed thorough death, he is alive like no one ever has been. Precisely because he uses death as his war chariot, he tramples down death and the powers of hell. Christ Jesus does not merely defeat the enemy of human thriving, but he uses the enemy’s greatest weapon against him, and turns all things upside-down for our good. As Saint Paul proclaims, “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” The victory of death has ended for all time, because Christ, with the charity of his divinity and the courage of his humanity, embraced it and flooded it with the light of life.
And yet, here we remain, with the spirit of death seemingly as heavy upon us as ever. Each one of us must still die, and the agents of the devil continue to drive human hearts towards death through fear, hatred, and despair. Where is the Lord’s victory?
The Lord’s Easter victory remains wherever he is. We receive it when we are baptized, when we confess our sins, when we receive communion well, when we gather in the Church to worship the Trinity, when we listen to the teaching of the Apostles, when we minister to Christ in our neighbor, especially the poor, and whenever we open our minds and hearts to the truth of his presence, power, and love. In all these places, the life that has conquered death lives and communicates itself to us. It only seems like death still reigns. The truth is that it has been emptied of its power to destroy us. It can frighten us, cause us pain, and take us from this life, yes, but it cannot, if we do not allow it, break our souls. Christ pioneered the route through death to glorious life, and it remains open to all those who are members of his body. Where he the head has gone, we the body can and will follow. So this Easter, when tempted to fear or discouragement by death’s shadow, we can stand straight and raise our heads, hearing the victorious song of the Easter Church, and striding forward with unconquerable courage in the footsteps of the one who by death trampled death forever. Happy Easter!