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Death Has Died

A reflection on Holy Saturday in anticipation of Easter

As a considerate colleague, I’ll acknowledge that today is not a kind of new year’s eve for all Christians. Eastern Orthodox, such as Rod Dreher and Helen Andrews, calculate the Paschal cycle with the Julian calendar, and so they will hold their Easter vigils next month. But for those of us fully of the West, today is Holy Saturday, tomorrow He is Risen, and yesterday was Good. 

Of course, the liturgical calendar actually begins on the first Sunday of Advent, but tomorrow is the Great Feast of Feasts, the biggest and the best, and it marks a beginning, the confirmation of the Gospel. As the Apostle Paul said in his first letter to the church at Corinth, “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” Participating in one Easter long ago, each year tomorrow makes vanity of vanities, and death of death.

Easter has its funny trappings of eggs and bunnies; Madison Avenue has made its game attempt to make the house of prayer again a den of robbers. But Christ still drives out those who are buying and selling, for Easter confounds us more even than Christmas, which has been thoroughly domesticated and commercialized. In a post-Christian society we hear strange echoes of the Gospel everywhere, see a Christ-haunted world, and so we live in an age, even after a century of man-made horrors, more than ready to believe humanity can be God. The mystery of the Incarnation is not strange enough; we have accepted it too readily, and think about its meaning too little: “For he was incarnate that we might be made god,” as Athanasius of Alexandria wrote. 

But modernity—in all our striving after victory over nature, the manipulation of matter, the conquest of space and time—springs from a hatred and fear of death. In its most basic expressions and taken to its extreme, after all the convenience and utility it promises, our culture has defined down human ends to mere survival, and continues to do so. We have all seen this more clearly in the last year, the ways that the mere sustenance of on-off switch life overshadows all other considerations. Reduced to so many bits of biology, to be measured, recorded, and sustained by the calculations of health care and science, we go on, alive, but afraid, hemmed in on all sides by a mortal enemy.

Easter says the foe is beaten. And not overcome by a suicide, which would only be a wrestling control away from fate, a self-defeat, but forced into submission instead in a fair fight, for, wise Athanasius again:

As a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be annihilated.

And this is the fight that, in a secular age, humanity still fights on in vain, ignoring the victory, wishing and striving to endure on this plane of decay—Dylan Thomas’s, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And this is why Easter doesn’t fit, can’t be made a comfortable part of a man-god religion that has rejected the God-man.

The rhythms of the Christian calendar, too, confound our society’s attitude towards existence. We are utopian presentists, seeking to experience now what is promised for the future, forgetting and condemning the past. This myopia, the cloud of witnesses observed in the book of Hebrews dispels like mist, for in the feasts and fasts and memorials of absent-only-in-body holy ones we make the present relative, a moment in the midst of the great story, real only in its participating in three glorious acts of God from out of time into history: creation, redemption, consummation. The flow of time, like the finality of death, is illusory from eternity, a transformation and resurrection that is only a singular now. Every Sunday is an Easter Sunday and every Easter is the emptying of the sepulcher of the dying God.

So, may you have a blessed Holy Saturday. And may you remember along with our happy fault that yesterday has been made Good. And may you hope in your own resurrection as you declare tomorrow in joy that, indeed, He is Risen. So then with John Donne, metaphysician and holy sinner, you may say,

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.



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