Easter as a Communal Event

 

On Sunday, April 17, the Western Christian world celebrated Easter; the mystery and wonder of Jesus rising out of death into new life.  Because of calendar differences that go back a thousand years, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church celebrated Easter yesterday,  April 24.  And while both Christian traditions celebrate Easter, the dynamics surrounding the Resurrection are different.  In the West, the implication is that the Resurrection is an individual affair.  Jesus has shown the way to new life, and people can accept the gift, and join Jesus in this new life, one person at a time.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Easter is more of a communal event.  There are many images in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (a well -known one, the Anastasis icon, accompanies this post)  in which the risen Christ is seen reaching back into hell and pulling Adam and Eve out, and anyone else who desires it into new life.  Jesus waits on the threshold of this new life – and is active in bringing others out of darkness into the light.

 

Most of us, believers and unbelievers alike, have been trained to think that heaven is this Edenic place located up there.  Out of view.  Someplace we hope to get to after we die.  But I have found in my experience that heaven can be right here – in those situations and moments when love, hope and blessing converge all at once.  They may be fleeting, but they are real.  I hold on to those memories.  I cherish them.  They feed me.

Hell is heaven’s opposite; situations and moments when love, hope and blessing are absent.  We see hell all the time.  These days we see and hear the wrenching stories coming out of Ukraine.  Love, hope and blessing seem to be absent.  Many of us have been to hell ourselves – where love, hope and blessing could not be found.  They are paralyzing.  We may still have those memories.  They are hard to let go of.

Easter, particularly in the eastern tradition, provides the promise that there is a force and presence that can pull us out of hell.  I have known many people who testify to that experience.  Some are professed Christians.  Some are not.  All tell of moments when all they could see and feel was darkness, and something – most often beyond themselves, brought them out of that terrifying place.

In the eastern Orthodox tradition, Easter has two dimensions:  to accept in faith that Jesus has risen to new life; and then grabbing hold of it and helping the living Christ to pull others out of their hell.  Regardless of where they live or what they believe.    It’s not about me, or you – but about all. That we are all related to each other.

I find that that the Orthodox tradition of Easter is a helpful corrective to my tendency to reduce Easter to an individual choice.  It helps to keep the heart open and the eyes focused on what is happening in Ukraine, on the subways in Brooklyn, at the US-Mexican border or in Congress– and all the other places where there is human misery.  We have a responsibility to help.  To see them so that when people’s lives are in peril, or suffering the worst that humans can do to each other, our hearts, even though pierced, can remain open – and continue to be able to respond by pulling them out with whatever prayers, compassion, donations, witness, advocacy and hope we can muster.

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