On these holy days, the Church calls the faithful to special reflection on the mysteries of faith
Augustine Sokolovski, Priest, Doctor of Theology
Easter in 2022 falls on April 24th. The week preceding this main event of the Christian liturgical year is called Passion Week and is dedicated to the remembrance of the sufferings on the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
On these holy days, the Church calls the faithful to special reflection on the mysteries of faith. The concern of the Church is aimed at helping the people, to avoid all sorts of misunderstandings.
Some say that the Lord Jesus, experiencing forsakenness after His Entry into Jerusalem, became, in a way, a prototype of modern secularity, or, if we translate it into the language of everyday life, gave us an example of how we can live without churches and holy places. This is a serious theological error.
The Lord experienced God-forsakenness. But he did it on the Cross. At the same time, His whole life was filled with the presence of God. The words of the Heavenly Father – “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” – were heard at the very beginning of the Lord’s mission, at the time of Baptism (Mk. 1:11), and just before its completion, at the time of the Transfiguration (Mk. 9 ,7). They are biblical evidence that the grace of God and the Holy Spirit rested upon Him in abundance. The Lord Jesus was full of power and glory and blessing.
That is why the Lord could heal, cleanse, and what is very important, had the power and authority to forgive sins and raise the dead. Even just before His Passion, when the soldiers came to isolate Him from the disciples, taking Him into custody, they “stepped back and fell to the ground” as soon as they heard His voice (John 18:6). In the Gethsemane Prayer, when all the sinless human nature of the Lord was horrified and trembled before the coming death, faith and prayer, and the Angel of God strengthened Him. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. An angel appeared to him from heaven and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43–44).
Our glorious Lord Jesus, Beloved Son of the Father, Christ Messiah, trust His Father and prayed for those who were crucifying Him. He was always filled with the Kingdom, and Power, and Glory, and… Faith. By His faith we are saved. By His wound we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
On the Cross, the Lord experienced what each of us human beings should have experienced. He truly experienced that God-forsakenness, which we experience in our lives – in our fears and in our depressions, in our panic and in our weakness – but which, in the least degree, cannot be compared with the God-forsakenness that our Lord then already took over. He truly experienced that terrible, bitter, cursed, hellish emptiness of God-forsakenness, which pierced Him, as His was Hanged on the Cross. The Sin of the World was laid on Him. The sun has faded. It could not look at this terrible splendor of human sin that killed God.
Approaching this Great Day of the Lord Jesus’ Death on the Cross, we also remember those who were close to the Lord and whom the Lord loved. We remember the one who betrayed and sold the Lord Jesus. Liturgical texts say a lot about him. Literature and philosophy think a lot about him. His Name is Judas. Perhaps we have never been so close to understanding who Judas Iscariot really was.
Judas was a truly religious man… in the face of himself and in the eyes of the world. A man of autonomous religiosity, he was so close to our 21st century. The time when we build not temples, but banks; the time that proclaims that there is no salvation outside the market. “He had a money box with him and carried what was put into it” (John 12:6). Judas forgot that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God who trusts us. Requiring irresponsibility, God is trusting and spontaneous. God of the Apocalypse. God takes the world by surprise.
In moments of crisis – in the history of the world and in the personal biography – where, as it seems, everything is simple and “decided for us without us,” the Lord stands by. He is waiting for our choice. He is waiting for our decision, to see if we will renounce. Shall we not find – to justify our own, personal, or collective fear and betrayal – the genuine Religious Arguments? Shall we not refer, in justification of our own God-forsakenness, to His infinite great Example? An example of the Great Sufferer who was crucified.
The Lord longed to bring us salvation. He was hungry for the fulfillment of the Scriptures. “Knowing that everything had already happened, he said: “I thirst!” (John 19:28). This thirst for the salvation of the world was a true testimony that even in His forsakenness the Lord Jesus was never forsaken.
“He took upon Himself our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (Isaiah 53:4). This messianic prophecy of the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah undoubtedly refers to our Lord Jesus Christ. In these days of the Great Week of the Lord’s suffering on the Cross, the Church, as a community of believers, is called to attentive reflection on the facets of the redemption in Jesus Christ.To understand the words of Isaiah, it is extremely important to know the biblical, patristic and, no matter how unexpected it may sound, the dogmatic understanding of the disease. The essence of illness and even death was not accessible to the understanding of the person of ancient times. Indeed, in that time, in general, it was believed that illness, or death, is some kind of autonomous entity. It comes suddenly, penetrates into a body, it takes over the human being. But if a person possessed a certain spell, or, perhaps, knew a certain doctrine, acquired an antidote, then nothing bad could simply happen.
In turn, the Pelagians – heretics, named after their protagonist, the British monk Pelagius, who preached at the beginning of the 5th century, – transferred this understanding to the level of Christian dogma. They taught that by applying a special effort, one could achieve sinlessness, and eventually gain immortality. Arguing with this and with similar teachings, St. Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius in Roman Africa, argued that the dispute about whether a person is mortal or immortal is meaningless. For the man… is already dead. Even if he is still living and moving. “To live is to die”, – as Metallica sings.
It is much easier for a person of the 21st century to agree with Augustine, and therefore with the teaching of the Church, than with Pelagius. Each of us is familiar with the history of his or her illness, everybody knows about hereditary diseases. Everybody knows that death, in one way or another, soon or late, will overcome us.
Pelagius was condemned at the III Ecumenical Council of 431. Some opinions that a person is able not to sin in this life were condemned at the Carthaginian Councils of the beginning of the 5th century adopted by the Universal Church. Belief in the ability to live and not sin is heresy. The condition of us humans as children of Adam is such that sin is a sign of life. According to the words of the Apostle Paul, only “the dead cease to sin” (Rom. 6:7).
Sin is a sign of life. Simultaneously it is evidence of death, which lives in everyone, abides with everyone, and will never be separated from us until it completely destroys us. Until we leave this world. As one of the songs of Nautilus Pompilius figuratively says: “Cain will kill us all, because he no longer has eyes.”
No teaching, no meditation, no other religion, no technology is simply able to save a person from death and sin. And everything that modernity offers – all biological, medical, physiological promises, any kind of virtual or real immortality, all religions and sciences of the world, all ideas, philosophies, and beliefs – are simply unable to conquer death. Death is next to us, and in us: like a sister, like an interlocutor, like an alter ego, like a second self.
Deliverance from sin, sickness and death is possible only in our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, He was not born of a man and a wife, but, accordingly to the Creed, of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The birth of the Holy Spirit means that He is a newly created Man, the Second Adam, in whom there is neither sin nor death. The Lord Jesus Christ became the divine human response to the commandments, to the calls and promises and, most importantly, to the Testament. For everything that God expected from man, but could not receive, starting from Adam and Eva – who ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – and ending with us, “the last people of the last times, who know too much”.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the God Who Entered into History. In Jesus is the infinite “Yes” and “Amen” to His Divine Father. He healed, cleansed, forgave, resurrected, brought closer, united. In return He was crucified. According to the incomprehensible mystery of the divine economy, it turned out that at the time of the Crucifixion, everything in Him become a true blessing for everyone.
The Lord was tortured, and pierced, nailed, and crucified. The Lord was spat upon, and killed, he was cursed according to the biblical word. “If a crime worthy of death is found in anyone, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, then his body should not spend the night on a tree, but bury him on the same day, for cursed before God is everyone who hangs on a tree, and not defile your land, which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance” (Deut. 21:22–23).
The curse, the condemnation of death, which we all deserve, turned into a condemnation of death that fell upon Him. And when the Lord was crucified, the voice of the Father that accompanied Him all the days of His earthly life – “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” – became forever our property. The property of all who believe, who believe and have faith in Christ Jesus until the end of the age.
The Lord proclaimed on the Cross: “It is done” (John 19:30). And the favor of the Father turned to us. We have become heirs of His Life, for Jesus has become the heir of our death. This is the essence of the New Testament. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes: “For where there is a covenant, the death of the testator is needed” (Heb. 9:16).
In the sacraments of the Church, in the sacramental, mysterious reality of her life, it happens that all our illnesses, visible and invisible, all weaknesses and sins become His property and enter into His reality, partake of Him …. in order to be destroyed. Even if we do not receive instant healing and deliverance from the diseases that haunt everyone, this does not mean that they are not healed. On the contrary, it means that they will serve us in redemption, for they have already been partakers of His Cross.
The Lord has made his wandering Church the heir of the Kingdom. The quiet joy of the first days of the Great Week of Suffering is a guarantee of the blessing that the Lord granted. Glory is given instead of sin. For sin is lost glory. The Lord will reign with His saints in the Kingdom. “From the ends of the earth we hear the song: “Glory to the Righteous!” The Lord of Hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders there will be glory” (Is.24:16;23).
These are the days of Suffering of the Great Sufferer – our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the beginning of the great days of Passion. It means that from now on, strengthened by the sacraments, we are called to forget about our own sins. For by our sins the Lord is led to death. We must forget about our sorrows and illnesses. For in these days there is One Who Sorrows and Sick. The son of the carpenter Joseph, according to Scripture, the Son of Man, as the Lord Himself most often called Himself, the Son of Humanity, which, as a kind of collective carpenter, turned out to be able to make only the Cross for the Best of People. In these days of the Great Holy Week, only one Great Dead Man hangs on the Cross. Silence surrounds the earth. The Lord is coming to rise on the third day.
The “Third day” is the time when, according to biblical teaching, the deceased person is finally and irrevocably dead. The “Third Day”, when all human hope is lost, but only God begins to act. He is the Son of God, who suffered for us and died – this is the only Remembrance of these days. It contains healing, forgiveness, and resurrection. “The Lord will bind our wounds. He will revive us in two days, on the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before Him” (Hosea 6:1-2).
The irmos of the ninth ode of the canon of Matins on Holy Thursday in Church Slavonic language begins with beautiful words about the “Lord’s Wandering”: “Come and enjoy the wanderings of the Lord and immortal meals.” The word “wandering” in the Greek language literally means “hospitality”, but in the Slavic language, with a literal translation its meaning widens to include an extremely rich combination of hospitality and wandering of the Lord.
According to the Gospel, the Lord Jesus really spent His whole life wandering. He himself spoke of the fact that He had nowhere to lay His head. Thus, He Who is homeless, for the Last Supper of His earthly life, invites the disciples and apostles, among whom, the traitor, invites all of us, each individually and the whole Church, to take part in his wanderings and his meal, He invites us to enjoy His hospitality.
The hospitality of the Lord, the hospitality of the Last Supper of our Lord is not only the ascension with Him to Jerusalem to participate in the Last Supper, but also the entire path of Passion Week, dedicated to remembering the events, miracles and deeds of the Lord performed by Him in the last days of His earthly life. This is the meditation on all His words, which, as the book of Ecclesiastes says about the words of the Righteous, are like driven nails (Eccl. 12, 11). Nails that pierced the Body of the Righteous One, nailed on the Cross.
The story of the barren fig tree is also remembered in these days. It tells how the Lord, going up to Jerusalem, saw a tree that did not bear fruit. The Lord cursed the fig tree, and it withered immediately. This narrative contains a direct moral edification addressed to everyone: if we do not bear the fruits of virtue, then we will be identified with a barren fig tree, and the word of damnation will be pronounced over us.
But this narrative has another, theological meaning, directly related to the mystery of Salvation. After all, every person, by nature, is barren. We, as Dostoevsky writes about it in his Notes from the Underground, are all stillborn. Unable to bear fruit. Already withered and died, being alive. “You bear the name as if you were alive, but you are dead,” says the Apocalypse (Rev. 3:1).
To save the world, our Lord Jesus Christ… became a fig tree. But he became a flowering fig tree, full of life and strength. He had no sin; he did not have to die. But having ascended the Cross, He took upon Himself the curse of the Cross, addressed not to Him, but to “everyone hanging on a tree”. He did it voluntarily. Thus, the curse of all people fell on His head. Lord Jesus became a fig tree that accepted the curse so that we could all partake of the life-giving hospitality of His Sufferings.