The Orthodox Pages



8th May 2008












































































































On the 27th April we celebrated the Holy Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ. In the West, like England and America, so much fuss and preparation is made for the feast of Christmas. People decorate their homes and streets, send Christmas cards and begin buying presents two or three months before. Even non – Christians join in the celebrations and although all this is the commercial aspect of the feast, almost everyone knows that at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. Sadly, Easter is a feast that the western world has almost forgotten and for most it has been reduced to an observance of giving and receiving chocolate Easter eggs and chocolate Easter bunnies with little knowledge of what the actual feast means. If you ask a child to explain what Easter is, don’t be surprised if he tells you that it’s the time when bunny rabbits give birth to little baby bunnies. On the other hand, for us Orthodox this is the greatest feast in the Church’s Calendar, it is the Feast of Feasts, the festival of all festivals, the miracle of miracles and the greatest event in all the history of mankind. This does not mean that we reduce the importance of Christmas or other feasts in the Ecclesiastical Calendar. Each feast has its special place and meaning, but whereas Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, in other words, the festival in which we celebrate the event of God becoming man to save mankind, Easter or Pascha, as we should refer to it, is the celebration of the fulfilment of man’s salvation, the fulfilment of why God became man in the first place.

You all know the story of Adam and Eve and how they fell from grace; we have mentioned it on many occasions. Man was created for Paradise, for immortal life, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Adam’s original sin resulted in man being exiled from paradise and being deprived of that blessed life, and instead of immortality was now subject to illnesses, diseases, pain, suffering, ageing bodies, and death. Christ, with his death and Resurrection, re-opens the door of Paradise to everyone who follows him, so Easter is in fact the celebration of mankind’s return to Paradise: it is the celebration of our return to God. For mankind there can be nothing more important than the fact that Christ has made it possible for us to live eternally with him in paradise. Pascha is therefore not only the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, but also our very own resurrection from the dead.

That is the meaning of the Easter Hymn which we sing continually for 40 days until the feast of the Ascension. “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he hath overcome death and to them in the graves hath he given life.” The first part of the hymn is a proclamation and it is the main proclamation of the Christian faith “Christ is risen from the dead”. The second part of the hymn tells us what this means for us; “by death he hath overcome death and to them in the graves hath he given life” in other words, by his death on the Cross he has overcome man’s last enemy, death itself. Up until that moment, everyone that died had no open passage to heaven: all souls ended up in a place cut off from paradise which the Greeks called Hades. Everyone inherited the consequences of Adam’s original sin. Christ was the only exception. Christ was not subject to original sin and was free from all personal sin, he was therefore not subject to death. When he was crucified and laid dead in the tomb, death had no legal claim over Him, and so His body was resurrected and became an immortal body. Christ’s human nature, free from sin, had broken the barrier that separated us from God. Christ the New Adam had pulled down the middle wall of partition that had been erected by the fall of the Old Adam. And in the same that we are all one and share in the fallen human nature of the Old Adam, we now become one with the renewed and deified human nature of Christ, the New Adam and this we do when we partake of his precious Body and Blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
The news that Christ is risen is so joyous, so marvellous and so important for the human race that we cannot but continually proclaim the Good News. Thus if you ever wondered why we sing Christ is risen so many times on Easter night and the following days of Bright Week, then you should now understand the reason for such repetition. During the Easter Vigil we actually sing the hymn approximately 60 times. But even after this we greet everyone with Christos Anesti (Christ is Risen) and respond with Alithos Anesti (He is risen indeed) for the next 40 days. The Christian faith is based on the fundamental truth and absolute fact that Christ arose from the dead. Christ's Resurrection is the guarantee of our salvation and together with His Ascension it brings to perfection God’s union with us for all eternity. St. Paul says that “if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14) What he is saying is that there is no Christian faith without the Resurrection; it is pointless and futile to even mention Christ if we do not accept that he died a real death on the Cross and miraculously arose from death on the third day.
Now the Resurrection has not yet abolished the reality of death. As a result of the fall our bodies continue to decay and die, but we now live with the expectation that when we die we will be united to the Resurrected body of Christ and in the hope of the General Resurrection when we will all receive our own resurrected bodies. People often ask - Will those bodies be the same bodies we have now? Yes, but with certain attributes that they didn’t have before. They will be immortal without the possibility of decay and death. They will if fact be like the Resurrected body of Christ. So how different was Christ’s body after the Resurrection?
Let’s examine the different occasions Christ appeared to the various disciples and see how His resurrected body differed from the Body he had before his death on the Cross. Firstly we must stress that the Orthodox Church believes that Christ suffered a real death and an actual resurrection. Resurrection, does not mean bodily resuscitation similar to people being resuscitated in the operating theatre. Neither the Gospels nor the Church teach that Jesus was lying dead and then was biologically revived and walked around in the same way that he did before he was killed.
Our first news of the Resurrection comes from the tomb itself. The four Evangelist all give different accounts of the number of women that visited the sepulchre, but that does not mean that they contradict each other. Each is mentioning a different occasion, a separate visit. Thus Matthew tells us that as it began to dawn, in other words while it was still fairly dark, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, meaning Mary the Mother of God came to the sepulchre and suddenly there was a great earthquake because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. This he did, not as some imagine in order to let Jesus out, but to reveal that Jesus was not there. The angel tells the women that he knows that they seek Jesus who was crucified, but he is not here because he is risen and invites them to see where he was laid to rest. This was in fact enough proof that Jesus had risen which I will explain when we get to St. John’s account of the Resurrection.

Now if the stone was rolled away to reveal that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, where did it go? This is our first encounter with a resurrected immortal body and how it differs from our mortal bodies. Although it is still a material body in other words it is not a ghost, it can actually pass through other solid matter. If the Body was no longer in the tomb then we can only assume that it passed through the stone sepulchre and was already outside of the tomb before the women witnessed the angel roll the stone away. St. Mark, in his account of the resurrection doesn’t mention the earthquake or the rolling away of the stone, but when the women came to the tomb the stone had already been rolled away. He says that three women came to the tomb, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Salome. Mary the mother of James might be the wife of Cleopas, but it is more probable that Mark is again referring to the Mother of God. We have in St. Matthew’s Gospel the account where Jesus taught in the Synagogue of the town he grew up in and the people were so astonished at his teaching because they knew who he was and knew his family that they said: “Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?” (Matth. 13: 54-55) Of course these were Joseph’s children from his previous marriage, but legally they were Jesus’ brothers and legally Mary’s Children even though they were older than her. Another difference between Matthew and Mark is that Matthew mentions the angel sitting on the stone that he rolled away, Mark mentions that the angel is inside the sepulchre sitting on the right side of where Jesus’ body would have been laid. St. Luke mentions Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women that were with them and also mentions that there were two angels in the Tomb.

St. John’s account of the Resurrection is of special interest. In a previous talk we mentioned that John wrote his Gospel after the other three Evangelists and one of the main reasons was to supplement the narration of the other three synoptic Gospels. As a disciple who was close enough to be with Christ at all times, he heard and saw a great many more things than the other Evangelist. In his account of the Resurrection he mentions that Mary Magdalene came by herself to the sepulchre while it was still dark and saw the stone rolled away, but didn’t enter inside. She run back and told Peter and John who accompanied her back to the tomb. John describes how Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen clothes lie and the napkin that was about his head not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then John himself enters the tomb and he saw and believed. But what did John see that made him believe that Jesus was resurrected? By seeing an empty tomb is not proof of the Resurrection for as he himself says immediately after “For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” (John 20: 9) So what did he see, what did he notice that was so extraordinary and so convincing that he mentions that when he saw he believed that Christ arose from the dead? Peter who entered first doesn’t seem to notice, because up to that moment John was speaking in the plural but now he suddenly changes from the plural and states in the singular case that he saw and believed. Only his eyes noticed something totally extraordinary and illogical which was proof enough for him to believe that Christ was Risen.

What John saw made him the first to believe in the resurrection. It is believed that what he saw was that the linen clothes were still on the burial stone in exactly the same way they were when they were wrapped around Jesus’ body. In other words Jesus didn’t get up and remove his burial clothes, but passed through them leaving them behind as they were on the stone slab. The cloth which covered his head was a separate piece and that fell of his face when he stood up and which he carefully folded and placed in a separate place from the other burial clothes. Thus already from the tomb we see that the Resurrected Jesus still has the same body, but in a new and glorious form. It is still flesh and blood but can pass through other solid matter. Matthew tells us that as the two Maries run to tell the Apostles the angel’s message, they were met by Jesus and they held him by the feet and worshipped him. They did not see a spirit but a real tangible person. Christ appeared many times to the Apostles, sometimes to one or two and at other times to all the Apostles together. He appeared to Peter separately and to Luke and Cleopas whilst they were on their way to Emmaus. He spoke with them explaining the scriptures concerning himself to them for hours yet they didn’t recognise him. Only after the blessing and braking of bread were their eyes opened to see who their walking companion was and then he vanished from their sight. So another attribute of the Resurrected body is that it can appear in another form probably with different characteristics and can appear and disappear at will.

The Emmaus story is told us by Luke himself who then mentions that they immediately returned to Jerusalem to tell the other Apostles of their experience. While they recounted what had happened Christ again appeared in their midst. Luke tells us that they were all terrified and frightened because they thought they had seen a ghost. Christ then reassures them that he is not a ghost and showing them his hands and his feet with the wounds from the nails, invites them to touch him to verify for themselves that he is indeed a human being made of flesh and bones for as Christ himself tells them: “for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have.” But the disciples still disbelieved their eyes so Christ asked them if they had anything he could eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish and a piece of honeycomb which he ate in their presence. He had of course no bodily need to eat. He ate in order to show the Apostles that he was not a spirit because spirits cannot eat. The Resurrected body has no need of sustenance, but can eat if it so desires. Remember that Adam before the fall, when his body was still immortal, could eat of all the fruits in the garden of paradise. The immortal Resurrected Body has therefore many attributes which we would only expect to find in fictional films like the Highlander. To summarize: Christ in his new and glorious form could appear at will in different places instantaneously. He could pass through solid matter or appear and disappear at the blink of an eye. He is difficult to recognize or can change his appearance so as not to be recognized and could eat and drink if he so wished. This then is the kind of body we will all have after the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Christ.
Now the same event of Christ appearing to the disciples told us by Luke is also narrated by John, but he leaves out the details of the food and supplements other details not mentioned by Luke. John is the only Evangelist who has preserved the special episode involving Thomas. When we think of Thomas we always tend to think of Doubting Thomas because he didn’t believe the other apostles confession that they had see the Lord, yet he was no different from the other Apostles. They also didn’t believe until they had seen and even then still doubted what they saw. The Thomas account is the Gospel we heard on the Sunday that just passed called Thomas Sunday. It presents to us the significance of believing only after having seen the living Christ, in other words after having proof, and believing without having seen him. Let’s then examine the Thomas incident a little closer. The reading begins on the evening of Easter Sunday:
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side.” Here again we have the attribute of the Resurrected body appearing where it wills: doors and walls do not present themselves as obstacles.
“Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” This passage, although not relevant to our talk today, is worth noting. People often say that they can confess their sins directly to God without the need to tell a Priest, yet this very passage is the authority and power given by Christ himself to the Apostles who in their turn passed it on to the bishops and Priest to forgive sins. “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Here Thomas doesn’t completely dismiss the disciples’ confession, but refuses to believe that Jesus is risen, unless he sees him with his own eyes. The condition imposed by Thomas is clear and absolute: personal verification by sight, direct access by eye contact and nothing less. But even seeing is not enough proof for Thomas: he also wants to verify what he sees by touching Jesus at the very marks of his crucifixion: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas’ demands have characterized him as being a total sceptic, a person of little faith having a crude unbelief. Yet he demands nothing more than the proof Christ gave to the other Apostles. They saw the Risen Lord whom they at first thought was a spirit and were then invited to touch his hands and feet at the very marks of his crucifixion. It could very well be that Thomas was not so much rejecting the evidence of the other apostles as he was eager to make sure that what they have seen was not a ghost. Does he not also have the rightful claim to be granted a direct sight of the risen Christ as it happened with the other disciples? In this sense, Thomas is no different from all the other Apostles or even from you and me. If he is to be accused of anything it is that he should not have treated the other Apostles confession with the utter scepticism which could be interpreted as a total rejection of their sanity. Here were at least 10 people, 10 very close friends, who he had lived with as a close knit family for three years; he knew their characters and honest dispositions, they were serious people who had as himself been witnesses to countless miraculous events that most people would had rejected as fictional. Only just a week ago he was witness to Christ raising Lazarus who had been dead for four days; why then should one more miracle be so difficult for him to believe in?
The Gospel account continues a week after:
“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.” Again John tells us that the doors were shut and Christ miraculously appeared in their midst out of nowhere. “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”
Jesus had heard Thomas’ demands or provocation and invites him to proceed with the demanded test. The unbelieving disciple already sees Christ, but he is now asked to complete the test by adding the touching of the hands and of the side. Thomas, however, doesn’t complete his demanded test. Seeing was enough proof and with a giant step he leaps from the state of unbelieving to the state of believing. Suddenly he is convinced that the one whom he sees, is the risen Lord, the very same Jesus whom he knew, whom he followed and had been a companion for the past three years. One would have expected Thomas to apologise for not believing or even justify his unbelief, but instead without any our words he responds with an astonishing confession of faith; he answers and says: “My Lord and my God.” He is not only convinced that who he sees in front of him is the Risen Lord, but also that Jesus is God. This declaration of faith is unique. No other disciple in the Gospels has used such an advanced creedal formula for expressing his faith in Christ who is now called Lord and God. Only Peter, when Jesus had asked them who they thought he was, answered and said “Thou art the Christ the Son of the Living God.” (Matth. 16: 16) But now Thomas’s confession of faith, although short, assigns to Jesus the attributes of Lord and God in the same way Israel addressed God in the Old Testament.

When Jehovah Witnesses, who don’t believe that Jesus is God, are confronted with this statement of faith made by Thomas, they say that Thomas made a mistake, but if it was a mistake then why didn’t Jesus correct him. In fact Jesus accepted Thomas’ confession and immediately said to him: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Jesus here remarks on two types of faith: the kind of faith Thomas and the other Apostles had, a visual experience to believe, and a faith which is based only from hearing. With the first part of the statement, Jesus clearly speaks of a faith which is the consequence of a sight experience, but he doesn’t say anything to make us think that this kind of faith has a diminished value. The second part of Jesus’ statement is a beatitude which presents a different type of faith, namely a faith not depending on visual experiences: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Who are the recipients of such a blessing? Definitely the great number of the larger circle of the disciples who had not seen the risen Lord with their own eyes but relied on the eyewitness of the other disciples. Also the Christians living around the end of the first century AD for whom John the Evangelist writes his Gospel. The majority of these people were born years after the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, therefore they could not have seen him. They are proclaimed blessed because they have arrived at the state of believing in the risen Lord without the assistance or proof of immediate, direct and personal ocular experience. To these we can add every Christian up to our present age who believes that Christ is God. I would even go further and say that Christians of our times are more blessed that those Christians of the first century because although they might not have seen the Risen Christ, a great many were eye-witnesses to countless miracles performed by the Apostles: miracles which were deemed necessary to convince the thousands who heard their preaching that Jesus was indeed the one and only true God.

Christians of our time basically have to rely on and fully accept the apostolic eyewitness and tradition about Jesus. They have to follow a way very different from the way of Thomas and the other Apostles. If it was difficult for the Apostles to believe in the Resurrection even though they were witnesses to Christ raising from the dead Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s only son and Lazarus who had been dead four days, how much more difficult is it for someone to believe in Christ after two thousand years have past without any shred of evidence except by something that he reads in a book called the New Testament. Many people today repeat what Thomas said: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” The need to see to believe is a human attribute and we should not expect everyone to believe just because we believe, neither should we condemn them for their unbelief. For those who us who have not seen yet have believed, let us take comfort in the fact that Christ has called us blessed. And as Peter in his first Epistle says: “Whom having not seen (Christ), you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

Thomas’ demands have to this present day characterized him as “The Doubting Thomas” but we can also say that he said what he said because he believed correctly; because he believed in an orthodox way. Therefore we could call him “The Right-believing Thomas.” What do I mean by this? Paul tells us that we must test the spirits to see if they are from God lest we be deluded by the devil. All the fathers of the Church warn us not to immediately trust an apparition, because demons can also appear as angels of light or as one of the saints and even as Christ, so we should not trust what we see. We have also the example of the Mother of God herself who, when told by the Archangel Gabriel that she would receive in her womb the Son of God and that her aged and barren cousin Elisabeth was also with child, did not disbelief, but wanted verification. Thus she immediately set forth to go Elisabeth to see and verify for herself the things told her by the angel. And that is the Orthodox way: not to immediately accept, neither to disbelief, but to verify.
Christ is risen from the dead, by death he hath overcome death and to them in the graves hath he given life.