Christianity is a religion that transforms. Blindness becomes sight; mourning is turned into joy; a self-centered tax collector becomes a generous man; a devout Jew once participating in the murder of Christians becomes their spokesman, writing a significant portion of the New Testament.
The most dramatic transformation occurs during the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the God-Man Jesus Christ. The cross — an ugly, brutal instrument of death — is transformed into the doorway to Paradise.
This Sunday Eastern Orthodox churches throughout the world will celebrate that transformation in the most important holiday of the church year — Pascha, which is called Easter by the Catholic and Protestant West.
Through Holy Week, which leads up to Pascha, somber services focus on the suffering of Jesus Christ. But even in the darkest hours there’s always a hint of the resurrection to come.
Icons, which speak theology in form and color, show, in the image of the suffering Christ, that he is also victorious.
Holding an icon showing Christ wearing a purple robe and a crown of thorns, third-year St. Herman’s Seminary student Herman Madsen said that in the anguished face of Christ there is a look of victory and triumph.
“He is holding a reed in his hands, which are bound together,” Madsen said. “Christ knows that He’s going to be crucified and rise from the dead and triumph over death by his own death.”
Although Christ expresses suffering and humiliation, “His face is not contorted,” said Madsen. “He’s at peace because he’s the victor over death.”
At the top of the icon, which is titled “Extreme Humility,” are the words “King of Glory.”
Said Madsen, “Orthodox Christians put a great deal of emphasis on both (crucifixion and resurrection) as inseparable, because we believe that they were a joint action by Christ. We can’t have one without the other, or somehow make them separate events.”
This blending of momentary agony and eternal joy is expressed in the phrase “joyful sorrow,” which refers, not only to Christ, but to those who follow him.
“Even though suffering, we know that through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, we’re going to be resurrected, too — that we’ll be with him,” said Madsen. “This is the transformation of death into life.”
Some words that describe Christ’s temporal death and ultimate victory are interchangeable, notes Bea Dunlop, professor of patristics at St. Herman’s Seminary.
“In the Gospel of John, the verb used when speaking about Christ being lifted up on the cross is the same verb used for his ascension into heaven.
“Although the Orthodox Church (as do other denominations) takes time to remember these events in sequence — crucifixion, resurrection and ascension – there is in Orthodox liturgical celebration an intermingling of remembrance of all of these movements,” Dunlop said. “Even on the darkest evening of the year, Holy Friday, there is the reading of the dry bones passage from Ezekiel (which alludes to the transformation of dead bones into living beings).
“While we ‘walk with Christ,’ witnessing to his passion during Holy Week, we never pretend that we do not already know that ‘Christ is risen!’”
“In Orthodoxy, we don’t downplay his suffering, but there’s always that sense of joy,” said Father John Dunlop, dean of St. Herman’s Seminary.
“The joy of his resurrection is never far from the cross. We see him as the resurrected Christ.”
Dunlop said that the C. S. Lewis’s classic story, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” part of the Narnia Chronicles, conveys the blending of sorrow and joy when Aslan the lion, a Christ figure, goes through a Gethsemane-like passion.
“He is very much alone. He goes to the table where he is sacrificed by the White Witch. His hair cut off, he is laughed at, spit upon, and goes through all of that mockery.”
As he is being sacrificed there is a sense of victory.
“You go from extreme defeat and humiliation to a new life and victory in a Pascal sense,” said Dunlop.
On Holy Saturday, the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection, Christ is defeating death, challenging the Devil in his kingdom and soon will be “raising all the dead,” said Dunlop.
In the words of St. Augustine of Hippo, “The devil was conquered by his own trophy of victory … By seducing the first man (Adam), he slew him; by slaying the last man (Jesus Christ), he lost the first from his snare.”
Orthodox hymnographers such as St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Romanos the Melodist, “emphasized Christ defeating death by his death, entering Hades (or Sheol, the place of the dead) through the cross and leading the departed from Hades to Paradise through his resurrection,” said Deacon Irenaios Anderson, academic dean and church history professor at St. Herman’s Seminary.
Madsen said Orthodox faithful view the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ as if they were participating in it.
“We walk with Christ, through the events he and disciples went through,” he said. “It’s got this almost cathartic effect on us, in that we feel what’s going on.
“When it comes to the resurrection, we’re really experiencing the resurrection, even though we’re not physically seeing Christ rise from the dead like the apostles did. It’s not like a past event. It’s not something that happened 2,000 years ago. We’re participating in it right now.”
Christ’s death and resurrection are personal, said John Dunlop.
“Christ’s death and resurrection become my death and resurrection.”