Icon of the Harrowing of Hell.
Fallen Leaves wishes its readers, whoever they may be, a happy Orthodox Easter.
Something that always stood out to me when I read the New Testament is that the people described in it seemed very familiar to what you might call a “modern sensibility.” In particular, they saw belief as a problem — the phrase “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” only makes sense when the desire to believe is separated from belief itself. The occurrence and frequency of miracles throughout the New Testament does not really solve this problem; nothing can, it depends on the individual soul. Witnessing a miracle convinces some people to follow Jesus, but there are many others who would probably never be convinced by any number of miracles.
This is quite different from how people behave in the Old Testament, in which God is actively involved in human affairs and no one ever thinks to question whether He is real. People can be ungrateful or disobedient, but not from a lack of belief, and certainly there is no one who wants to believe and fails. In that sense, a much greater distance separates us from the people of the Old Testament, so it is easier to keep it at arm’s length and place it alongside myths from other ancient cultures even if one is not actively trying to view it in a secular way.
On the other hand, the people in the New Testament often react with incredulity and skepticism, much like we would if we were confronted with unambiguously supernatural events. Even people who personally saw Jesus heal the sick, or feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, are unable to believe that he could overcome death itself: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Even in the Old Testament, God does not resurrect the dead — rather, the only form of eternal life available is through one’s descendants, so the greatest promise God can make is, “I will make of thee a great nation.” Other belief systems were similar in this regard. The ancient Greeks and Romans, who had no trouble believing in gods and supernatural events, did not believe that their gods could control death: thus, when Paul preaches to the “devout Greeks” in Acts, their initial reaction is good-natured curiosity, and they listen with interest right until he mentions the “resurrection of the dead,” which most of them cannot accept. In this way, the Resurrection is more than “just another” miracle. It is different from all the other miracles in the Bible; it abolishes death, the one common experience of every human life, and thus becomes the central experience of Christian life.
Yet the Resurrection seems much more unimaginable and unbelievable now than it did to ancient or medieval audiences. Another surprise about the New Testament is that time and technological progress have not dulled the edge of its miracles at all. Two thousand years have passed, and death is more terrifying than ever. Here at Fallen Leaves, we make every effort not to be “current” or comment on so-called “issues,” but it’s hard not to feel that if there is one thing the entire world unanimously believes in now, it is the power of death. One can say or think that one believes in God, but as it turns out, that is not the same as believing that He has the ability to save us, not through some vague metaphorical “enlightenment,” but in the way He acts in the New Testament, by literally, physically overturning the laws of nature, which were just as immutable in ancient people’s eyes as in ours. Death, on the other hand, is very real and literal, and for most of us it easily outweighs any consideration of eternal life in any truly serious situation.
Rest easy! We would never think to question the authorities (“the powers that be are ordained of God“) or the experts — like you, I am sitting indoors, helplessly writing — and, in any case, they also closed churches during epidemics in the 18th century. I suppose all this just goes to show that the problems posed by the Gospel haven’t lost any of their power either — belief is still difficult, even if the desire is there. But I wonder how this difficulty will be handled now, by people who now know that they can easily accept a major disruption to their religious life; I wonder what the long-term consequences will be for faith in general, not only Christian faith. On one hand, the outward aspects of religion may even strengthen temporarily, as people return to their churches, relieved to have regained the opportunity for face-to-face contact with other human beings. But it will also be easier to turn it into a form of play-acting, so that the more fervent all of our prayers and services appear outwardly, the less they really mean, and the easier it becomes to put them all aside as soon as the next emergency happens.
But the Resurrection itself is not changed by what we think about it. The gifts of Pascha are still offered to everyone, regardless of how many of us reject or disregard them. Every year, there will be people for whom Easter Sunday is suddenly, unexpectedly transfigured, from a familiar social routine into the permanent, glorious end of fear and suffering. Perhaps, through their prayers, God will have mercy on the rest of us.
Paschal homily, Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg
Христос воскресе из мертвых, смертию смерть поправ,
и сущим во гробех живот даровав!