Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pascha – The Feast of Feasts, An Orthodox Christian Understanding

Next month we celebrate the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, but what is this Feast really all about? Many theologians throughout the centuries have written thousands of pages about Pascha making it a daunting task. Nonetheless it is important that as Orthodox Christians, living in a predominantly Protestant Christian environment, have a proper understanding of the Feast we call Pascha.

In short, Pascha is the celebration of the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. In this feast it is imperative that we understand that God, in the Second Person of the Trinity known as the Son of God, became a human being. Saint Paul writes, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2.17) In being a human Christ fully identifies Himself with our humanity in order, through His Death and Resurrection, to restore our humanity, fallen in sin, to Communion with God.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are united to Him in our human nature but not in our sins. As Fr. George Florosvky writes:

The Lord died on the Cross. This was a true death. Yet not wholly like ours, simply because this was the death of the Lord, the death of the Incarnate Word, death within the indivisible Hypostasis of the Word made man. And again, it was a voluntary death, since in the undefiled human nature, free from original sin, which was assumed by the Word in the Incarnation, there was no inherent necessity of death. And the free "taking up" by the Lord of the sin of the world did not constitute for Him any ultimate necessity to die. Death was accepted only by the desire of the redeeming Love. His death was not the "wages of sin." The descent of Christ into Hell is the manifestation of Life amid the hopelessness of death, it is victory over death. And by no means is it the "taking upon" Himself by Christ of the "hellish torments of God-forsakeness". This idea was brought forward with great emphasis by Calvin and shared by some other Reformed theologians, but at once was resented and vigorously repudiated by a great number of both Reformed and Catholic divines, as a "new, unheard-of heresy". (On the Tree of the Cross, Florovsky 1953)
Fr A. James Bernstein, in his book “Surprised by Christ” writes of the Jewish sacrifice (the context of Christ’s death on the Cross) in terms of purification of humanity. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15.3) to heal us, to change us, to make us more godlike, not instead of us. The ultimate purpose of His death was to change us, not to avert the wrath of God.”

Understanding Pascha in this Orthodox Christian way, the ancient way, is to recognize the Love of God reflected in His death on the Cross rather than His anger which demands that blood must be shed in order to forgive sins. To limit the death, burial and resurrection of Christ to “required bloodshed” is to limit God’s love and mercy.

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