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The Greatest Day in History

This is a true story about a single day two thousand years ago. Early in the morning a group of women neared a tomb, where they had observed the dead body of a loved one, being placed just a few days before. At that time of year, the sun arose just after six. Having observed the site, they were quite concern as to who would roll away the stone that guarded the entrance. Having observed the stone being moved in place, they knew that they lacked the strength. For their purposes, anointing the body, this would be essential. 

The day before being the Sabbath and a day of rest, they had no way of knowing that the very religious leaders behind the death of their friend, had gone to the Power responsible and requested a Guard. This Guard (most likely a group of soldiers) were to make certain that the body would not be stolen by the man’s followers. They had recalled the man saying that he would rise after three days. Perhaps recalling one of the man’s followers pulling a sword when they had seized the man, they credited his followers with courage and bravery. Even at that moment, these men were behind locked doors after scattering at the moment of crisis. 

Unaware of a guard ever having been posted, the women approached and were stunned to see that the stone had been rolled away. They were met by a young man in white (other accounts say an angel) who told them that the dead man was not there, but had risen…just as he had said. “Now, Go and tell his followers to meet him where he told you to meet him.”

What they did not know, nor could have known, was that sometime in the previous six hours…just after midnight…the earth shook just as it had a few days earlier. Earthquakes tend to do that; but this was something more. As if synchronized, an Angel rolled away the stone, at the precise time that the dead man rose from the grave. A split second after midnight was sufficient to fulfill the prophecy – three days meant any part of three days, it did not mean a literal and clocked 72 hours. Beside there was no sign of the Guard. When they saw the Angel, they were seized with fear and lay like dead men on the ground. They also had time to collect themselves of sorts, go to those who had placed them there, gather, meet and concoct a story should they be questioned. They needed every one of those six hours to recover and prepare.

The women, with no body to anoint, left to do what the angel had told them to do; tell his disciples. One woman remained behind. The group of women were met by the risen man while on their way. The woman remaining at the tomb, remained overcome with grief. She was assuming that the gardener or someone, had moved the body; for that is exactly what she asks of the someone she senses behind her. Upon hearing her name, she realizes it is the risen man! She is told by the risen man, the same thing that the angel had spoken: go tell his followers. She must have known where at least two of them were, for the next thing we know those two are having a foot race to see if what they were told was true. They see the empty tomb; they do not see the risen man…at that time.

To this point, there was only an empty tomb, where a dead body had been lying the day before. The guard that had fled could attest to that. Yet now there were eyewitnesses that had seen the risen man. However, all had been women and at that time, there testimony was not valid. Not even his followers believed the women. However, word is starting to spread among his followers.

Two men from Emmaus, a town about seven miles WNW of Jerusalem begin their journey home later that day. They are talking about the events of the past few days, when they are joined by another. As they continue to discuss, one of them turns to the man who joined them and ask, “Are you the only one that has not heard about the things of these past few days?” To which the man responds, “What things?” They continue and as they approach their home, they invite the other to have dinner with them, as it is getting late and the man appeared to be going further. As they sit down to eat, they ask the man to “say grace”. As he does so, suddenly they realize that this is the very man of whom they were speaking.

Though it is getting late and the return two-hour trip is uphill, they leave almost immediately. They go to a room where his followers have gathered. They are relating their story, when suddenly the risen man is in their midst.

A risen man. It takes time for the implications to sink in. A few people had been raised from the dead, some of them even by the risen man. But what sort of man is it that has power over death? Three hundred years later, the debate would still be raging as to whether this was a man or God or a God-man.

We know and have known. It is why we gather. Once a week we gather to remember the greatest day in history. It is more than just remembering, it is being in His Presence. We know from those followers and those who followed that this was fully God and fully man.

Like the newsboy on the corner shouts, “Read all about it.” We have the account which we read just a portion of each Sunday. We have just read in the services of this past week, numerous accounts of people preceding the aforementioned events telling how some of these events would unfold. This is possible because the God we worship and serve is the beginning and the end. The Alpha and Omega. He has always been. That risen man was God Incarnate. He took on flesh for us and for our salvation. How can we ignore (or be complacent) about so great a salvation?

The world can be a mighty unforgiving place.

The world can be a mighty unforgiving place. All history, certainly wars seem to be a reaction to slight or a perceived slight of another people or nation. It is as though we are all children in the back seat of the car, quarreling, pointing the finger saying, “you started it.”

Thank God, He took the blame. It is His character, His being to be forgiving, loving and merciful. For those probing the depth of that mercy, will often ask, “why then did He create the world?” The answer always returns to the depth of His Love, Mercy and Forgiveness! “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son…” God is not a Celestial Scrooge. He is not up in Heaven, keeping count. Someone/Somebody is trying to besmirch God’s character. Methinks, I know whom. He has been doing it for sometime.

In today’s Epistle reading, the Jailer in Philippi where Paul and Barnabas are being held is ready to take his life, after an earthquake has loosed the bonds of all prisoners. Desperate, he is certain he has no alternative. He knows how the city leaders are going to respond. What he does not know, what he is about to experience through these two Apostles (who also experienced God’s Love, Mercy and Forgiveness), is the depth of God’s Love for mankind. It is often at these darkest of moments, that God’s Eternal Light shines upon us. Once experienced, the slights of others pale in comparison.

In our Gospel reading, the disciples ask of Jesus, “who sinned this man or his parents, that he is blind?” It is a question of an unforgiving world; a question by those not understanding the depth of God’s Love. As Jesus’ answer attests, it was neither rather it was so that God’s Great Love could be manifested. 

Everything about our Christian Faith, the Divine Liturgy, Orthros, Confession, Vespers, the hymns, the reading of the Psalms, the Epistle, the Gospel, the Small Entrance, the Great Entrance everything reminds us of our unworthiness and His Abundant Mercy! We humans tend to need reminding. As effective as all of the above help us to recall His Mercy, there is another way in which we can recall the depth of His Love; living. From time to time, you may encounter someone who does you wrong. That is an opportunity for you to forgive, love and show mercy in the same manner in which you received it from God.

In today’s epistle, we read that it was in Antioch that Christians were first called Christians. Literally, it means “little Christ.” In eleven days, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father. In less than three short years of ministry, Jesus Christ accomplished so many things “which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Did this mean that all His marvelous deeds were to be told for generations or did it mean that and that others were going to tell of these deeds, but also accomplish deeds in their role as “little Christs?” By His Resurrection, Jesus Christ had conquered “death by death.” Remaining on this earth for another forty days, He was seen by over 500 brethren at once (probably at the Ascension). Then ten days later was Pentecost. By ascending, He left behind disciples to do the work of letting the whole world know what those 500 knew; Jesus Christ had conquered death by His death and therefore, we also could have eternal life, simply by believing. As the worldwide population of mankind reaches 7.8 billion this Wednesday, that is a long way from 500, even if it was 2000 years. Those in Jerusalem at nine in the morning, ten days after the Ascension. Were empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. Miracles of healing, raising people from the dead occurred. Slightly later, there was a persecution after the stoning death of Stephen the Protomartyr. The Church scattered. At this time, Antioch heard and called those proclaiming the message of Christ, “Christians.” People increasingly heard about the risen Christ; persecution forcing the disciples to go to other parts of the world. Few of us have had to shed blood for our faith, though Jesus Christ said, “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” This is part of being a Christian. Another part is that we have had our own Pentecost at our Chrismation; “sealed with the Holy Spirit.” “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” The glorious Ascension is our reminder that while we are here on Earth, we are “little Christs” proclaiming to each generation and every people the Good News that Jesus Christ conquered death for everyone who would believe. Christians are those who serve in place of the Risen and Ascended Christ! What an awesome privilege!

Going to Church

The famed evangelist Billy Sunday used to say that “going to church doesn’t make one a Christian any more than being in the garage makes them an automobile.” Western Civilization long ago entered a stage of Post-Christendom. Church attendance has significantly dwindled and those attending risk falling into a sense of attendance out of Holy Obligation. 

Personally, as the son of a Baptist minister, the only reason I had not set the all-time church attendance record is that I had four older siblings and my parents eased up on my younger brother and me. Every week, there was Sunday School, Morning Worship, Youth Group, Evening Worship and Mid-week prayer meeting. Two or three revivals or special services meant a week of services, there was camp in the summer, College had chapel attendance, as did Seminary. Pray tell why would I become Orthodox?

Going to church took on a new meaning. Entering the Narthex, you are entering a place of transition from this world into the next. You are entering into the presence of God, as you enter the Nave. Why is it called the Nave? Sounds like Navy. Boat. Ark. All mankind, anyone living today, were saved through that Ark; just as we are saved through the Church. If you look around any living person is a sinner, but in the presence of God we realize His Love, Forgiveness and Mercy; matter of fact we say it about thirty times during the Divine Liturgy, Kyrie Eleison; Lord, Have Mercy. If the sinners are in the pew, where are the Saints? There pictures are on the wall.

The Divine Liturgy is a retelling of the Gospel Story. But it is not just history, it is now. “Now and Always and to the Ages of Ages. Amen.” God is Eternal. He is the Alpha & Omega. The Beginning and The End. We are finite, limited in our understanding of the Infinite. It is a Mystery. We actually know more about God by what we do not know than by what we know. This is why very intelligent people may not comprehend what the simple accept. This is why Jesus Christ asked the children to come to him. Unless we become like little children, it is very hard to understand. When the priest enters with the Gospel, we recall His First Coming. Earlier at Orthros, the priest had read one of eleven Resurrection Gospels, reminding us that Sunday is a mini-Pascha; a day of Resurrection. The eighth day of creation, for we are a new creation by means of our Baptism

When the priest enters a second time, the Great Entrance, he is carrying the Chalice & Diskos, the Body & Blood. His face will be mostly hidden, representing when Moses came down from Mount Sinai and his face was covered, because it reflected the presence of God. Too bright for the human eye to see, for no one can see God and live. And yet, God took on flesh and became man, so we could see Him and Live! 

There is nothing routine about going to church; it just depends on how you look at it.

Around 6:00am

The question on the mind of a group of women was this, “who would roll away the stone?” Just a couple of days earlier, after a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea had asked Pontius Pilate for the body, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (there was Martha and her sister, Mary; Mary, the mother of James & Joses – Jesus had two brothers by those names and Mary, the wife of Cleopas, one of the two men who would have an encounter with the Risen Christ on the way to Emmaus) had observed the Body taken from the Cross and laid in the tomb. Then a large stone had been rolled in front of the tomb.

What they did not know was that the day before, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees had gone to Pilate. Recalling Jesus’ statements about rising after being three days dead, they asked for a guard to be placed at the tomb. They were concerned that the disciples would steal the body and perpetrate the idea that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. Having a guard at their disposal, they were granted permission. Thus, when μυροφοροι arrived they immediately noticed the stone had been rolled away and the tomb empty

Two millennia later are options are either to believe the women or to believe the Chief Priests and Pharisees. It must first be noted that at that time, there in Palestine, an eyewitness account of any woman was not acceptable under law. Two, three, eight women; it did not matter. Of course, having arrived in the early morning, the actual Resurrection had occurred earlier that morning…about six hours earlier, to fulfill prophecy. Every Evangelist account, except that of St. Matthew, begin the Resurrection account with the arrival of the Myrrh-bearing women. 

St. Matthew tells us that “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.” Further, St. Matthew tells us that as the women were going to tell the disciples, as the Angel had told them to do, they encountered the Risen Christ. At that same time, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests “all that had happened.” They were given a large sum of money, told what to say and promised protection if this came to the governor’s attention. 

Each of the accounts of the Evangelists were written anywhere from forty to seventy years after these events. Someone at the actual Resurrection (i.e. one of the Guard) had recanted his story, in order for St. Matthew to have this information. The Chief Priests and Pharisees so concerned about the disciples perpetrating fraud had been the reason for requesting a Guard. They were creating their narrative for their purposes.

The women were simply coming to prepare the body of a loved one for burial. It was an act of love. They too had heard the words of Christ about being dead three days before rising. They were simply concerned about a very large stone. Having stayed at the cross until the dying end, they had shown courage. They knew where the Body of Christ had been laid. Then at the first possible moment, they had gone to the tomb “with the Fear of God, Faith and Love.”

Our Encounter with the Risen Christ

How many of the Twelve Disciples could you name? Simon Peter, certainly. The “Sons of Thunder” James and John; Andrew, the first called and Peter’s brother; Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Christ and Thomas. The lists given in two of the Gospels vary a bit, Judas was replaced and then after the Resurrection, when they responded to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, they were then referred to as Apostles. Paul and Barnabas were two Apostles, though not considered part of the twelve.

Thomas is given the moniker, “Doubting” Thomas, which I would like to modify. It was Thomas that sensing the danger that Jesus (and thereby the disciples) were taking on by returning to Jerusalem, said “Let us go up, so that we may die with Him.” At about that same time, James and John are angling for a future position in the Kingdom, Peter would vehemently deny any association and Judas Iscariot would sellout Jesus. Thomas would stand with His Master to the death. Death was final for him, which is why he would not believe unless he placed his hand in the side of Christ and his fingers in the holes in his hands. The side which had been pierced and the holes from the nails that had held Jesus to the cross.

Thomas’ delayed response should be appreciated by all those who would believe from that moment on. Jesus says as much; “You (Thomas) believe because you see, blessed are those who do not see, yet believe.” That is us. That is found in one of the Resurrection Gospels read throughout the year. 

Yet today’s account is more than just belief. It is that which is to follow belief. It reveals to us the very purpose of His Incarnation, His Crucifixion, His entombment, His Resurrection, His Ascension and His Second Glorious Coming. “As the Father sent me; so send I, you.” In the very same manner that God the Father sent His Son, the Son is sending us. We have been sent to the world to reveal to the world the power that the Risen Christ can have on our lives! “Let us go up, so that we may live eternally with Him.”

Among the Crowd

The stadiums and arenas are empty. The crowds are silent. There is no one in attendance. The reality of social distancing starts to wear. The gathering of our fellow man is no longer something we take for granted. The congregation of believers is limited to ten or less. We like to gather; be it a ballgame, a convention or a parade.

Two thousand years ago this very Sunday, a crowd started to gather placing palms in the path of Jesus. Many had heard of him. Five thousand had been fed at the end of one day listening to Him speak like no other. Blind men received sight, lepers were cleansed, the lame could walk and most recently a man from nearby Bethany had been raised from the dead.

In just a few days, another crowd would gather. Worried that the crowds were starting to be drawn to this Jesus and knowing how a crowd could not be controlled, the religious leaders sought means to rid themselves of Jesus. 

We associate ourselves with others in various ways. Associations, fraternities, schools, churches, nations, ethnic groups, family names, neighborhoods and religion are organizations with whom we identify. For the Christian, however, our identity is found in Jesus Christ. At our Baptism, we died to self and arose with Him, a new creature. When the crowd is going one way, how do we determine whether it is a crowd crying, “Hosanna” or one saying “Crucify Him?” 

In today’s epistle, St. Paul tells us that whatever is good and noble to think of these things and our minds will be transformed. What good is to be found in the Coronavirus pandemic? Not much. Perhaps though we can look at this as an extended Great Lent. With so much time on our hands and the loss of the usual means of distraction, we have the opportunity as Christians to look inward and examine ourselves. Is not the prayer of St. Ephraim, “help me to see my own faults and not those of my brother,” the essence of Great Lent? With no one around, too much time, it is just the Holy Spirit of God and each of us. Spending time in prayer, examining our hearts, praying for others (including our enemies and those who do us wrong) is always a good and noble thing.

The poet Robert Frost once said, “two roads diverged in the wood and I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.” Who can know the mind of a crowd, the religious leaders feared exactly that, even as they would foment a near riot in bringing baseless charges against “The King of the Jews.” The Gospel of the Saturday of Lazarus relates the growing tension as Jesus and the disciples near Jerusalem. Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “let us go up to Jerusalem and die with Him.” Peter would draw his sword as a mob led by Judas, would try to seize Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Moments of courage, even as we know that Peter would deny Christ and the disciples would scatter.

Like the disciples, we would like to think that we would do the right thing when the difficult times come. Yet the fact is that we have numerous times every day to do the right thing and instead we “resurrect” ourselves. God is merciful. He so loved the world that He sent His Son. That Son died so that we might live. 

+ Fr Jim