By Chor-Episcopos Dr. Kyriakos of Chicago, Chief Editor
This Holy Week was a period of moving events for the nourishment of the life of every Christian. It commenced with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem accompanied by a jubilant Jewish crowd that acclaimed Him as the Son of David in order to rule over them by liberating them from Roman slavery. But this tremendously joyous episode did not last long. The Sadducees and the Pharisees, and the temple administration began to conspire on the same night against Jesus who had seemed to be a threat to their control of the people.
The following days are generally called the Days of Passion (suffering). On Thursday we were stunned by the love and goodness of God. On Great Friday we were grieved at the unfathomable suffering and pain inflicted on our Lord by men of unparalleled malice.
At daybreak on Sunday we were mesmerized and electrified by the Good News that the Man Jesus subjugated suffering and conquered death by rising from the grave proving that He was indeed the God, who had become incarnate to redeem a fallen human race by His suffering and death on the cross.
In fact all these days and their events are intertwined. Patristic theologian Burghardt says that all these “are a coat of different colors; but the coat is all of one piece”. Yes, each of them is a sequence of the previous one.
We should try to comprehend these events as the actualization of the Passover (Pesach) God had instituted through Moses some 1500 yeas before Christ our Lord, the Lamb of God, who became the true Victim of the Passover of the New Covenant. The theme of the prefugurative Passover of the Old Testament wherein the blameless lamb was slain and the real Passover of the New Testament wherein the pure Lamb of God was slain is the same: Sacrifice.
What is a sacrifice? It is the offering of a gift to someone, often a higher person, and the gift always stands for the offerer. The sacrifice as we know started with Cain and Abel whom God asked to offer worthy sacrifices to God on their behalf. We know the story of their sacrifices; Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God, but Cain’s was rejected. We offer SOMETHING in a sacrifice, and this SOMETHING belongs to us/ me. And this SOMETHING is a visible sign of something invisible, which is ultimately our “self”, our soul. Abel offered the best from his flock as he was a shepherd of sheep, and Cain offered the fruits of the earth as he was a farmer. Each item they offered was a visible sign of their soul. Each sacrifice shows total dependency on God, and each sacrificial act is surrender before God.
However, the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins has an added dimension; it is not sheer offering of a victim. The just punishment for sin, which is an attack on God’s sovereignty, is death, as St. Paul clearly taught. In other words, justice demands that the sinner has to die. But God wants every sinner to repent and reconcile with God. In the Old Covenant God asked Moses to sacrifice animals for the sin of His dear people to avoid death. The sacrificed animal became a visible sign of the sinner for whom it was sacrificed. So in the context of sin there is an offering, and the offering of a victim.
If we go back to Abel, we see that his sacrifice was accepted by God, but Cain’s sacrifice “He took no notice”. If our sacrifice is not accepted, it is a meaningless act; it would not bear fruits. Such a sacrifice is in vain. All the blood spilled from the victim becomes useless. There are three essential things needed for a sacrifice for sin. There should be a victim; and the victim should be slain; and the whole act of sacrifice God must accept.
The second person of the Holy Trinity became incarnate for one purpose. It was for the purpose of reconciling God the Father with a sinful humanity. Humanity could not pay the price of sin. A human being is unable to offer a satisfying sacrifice for his sin; even if he offers such a sacrifice, it would never become an acceptable sacrifice. It required a person Who is both God and man to do that job. A sacrifice offered by a mere human being cannot wipe away the sins of man from Adam to the last human being; the magnitude and depth of human sin is so immeasurable that a simple human being cannot propitiate for this violent violation of God’s law. Hence we received the Messiah to bear our iniquities. Prophet Isaiah had predicted the ultimate sacrifice to be offered by the Messiah, “He was a man in suffering… He bears our sins and suffers for us…But He was wounded because of our lawlessness, and became sick because of our sins. He chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruise we are healed” (Isaiah 53: 3-5).
Christ offered something of His own to the Father; He offered Himself to the Father. He became the priest to offer the sacrifice and He Himself became the victim; and the victim was slain on the cross. At the first Passover in Egypt, the lamb that was offered, was slain so that the punishment of death inflicted upon Egypt’s first-born might be averted from the children of Israel, and that the Israelites be delivered from Egyptian bondage. Their Passover sacrifice was accepted by God when the Israelites were delivered out of Egypt unharmed. Similarly, the effects of Christ’s sacrifice on cross, its power to remit our sins would definitely depend upon God’s acceptance of that sacrifice.
The mystical progression of this greatest divine-human act is very interesting to watch:
On Holy Thursday Jesus sat at His last supper and took bread in His Holy hands and said: “This is My Body, which is broken for you and many [which will be delivered to death for you], and is given for remission of sin and for life eternal…” Likewise also He took the cup and offered thanks and said: “This is My blood, which is shed and given for the remission of sins and for life eternal” (Luke: 2:19; Matthew 26:28). Actually this was his offertory. He offered Himself as a gift to the Father to become a victim to be slain for our sins.
On Great Friday, this gift to the Father, this victim, this ultimate offering, was slain on the cross. The sacrifice was offered. You can see a Victim hanging on the cross. And the victim was slain.
On Sunday, the day of the great Pascha, the day of Resurrection, God the Father revealed that He accepted this victim sacrificed for the sin of man. Saturday was a suspenseful period as to what would happen to this sacrifice and its victim. If the Father did not accept the sacrifice, it would be a meaningless act. This act of sacrifice did not come from a sinner. Christ did not have anything to do with sin. Among men born of a woman, there was no one as pure as Christ (Syriac Liturgy). And hence God the Father had every reason to reject His Son’s sacrifice; He could have said: “Even though You have become incarnate and could suffer like any man in virtue of your assumed human nature, you are not responsible for the sin of humanity, and therefore your sacrifice culminating with a death on the cross is totally rejected sine conditione. Let the sinful humanity bear the burden of its sins. Let man do the impossible for his reconciliation with Me”.
I take you to a scene three years behind the crucifixion. John the Baptist was just completing the baptism of Jesus in the waters of Jordan. Jesus was rising up from the waters after receiving the symbolic baptism from John (which was not meant for Him). You could see the Holy Spirit coming down on Him in the image of a dove and hear the voice of the Father: “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased!”
Yes, on the Sunday of Resurrection, this introduction of the Son to the world, His declaration heralding the redemptive mission of the Son, was realized for the cosmos. On this day, the Father revealed His PLEASURE in the Son, in the oblation, in the sacrifice, of His beloved Son. His Father accepted the Body that had been offered on Maundy Thursday and the Body that had been slain on the cross on Great Friday. He showed His acceptance of the Son’s sacrifice by raising His Body from the dead.
Thus the sacrifice achieved its goal. The resurrected Body with its blood shed for the sins of the world from Adam to the last human being until the Son’s second coming to establish His eternal kingdom, is in the hands of the Father begging for mercy for every sinner. On the day of Pascha, we have the assurance that the Father accepted the Victim slain for our sins.
In the Byzantine Liturgy, there is a striking and touching prayer to the Father immediately after the words of institution: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, for all and because of all…” Upon listening this prayer every true Orthodox Christian would melt in awe and wonder! A human being was incapable of attaining redemption through his sacrifice. God could not do it either as He could not suffer in His divinity; propitiation is possible only through shedding of blood, and it is a metaphysical impossibility that God can shed blood. It required a person with humanity capable of suffering and the unparalleled beneficence of the Deity to perform it and make it acceptable. God the Father sent His only begotten Son to become a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to do this job. He had all the perfection the Father required to become an offering (victim) and an offerer. In other words, recognizing our inability to regain our divine image and to restore our existential union with our Creator, God loaned His Son to do that job for our sake. That is why the Byzantine liturgy exclaims: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee for all and because of all…”, and that why this prayer is the most meaningful prayer in the Eucharistic Liturgy. One could call this the POWER-PRAYER in the Eucharist.
On the Sunday of Resurrection we are assured that the sacrifice offered by Christ was accepted, and that our immortality in His kingdom is also guaranteed.
Christ as God and Man did His part for our redemption. Now it is our turn. Redemption is a free gift for us; it is not achieved through our merits or good works; it is achieved through the merits and grace achieved by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity by shedding His blood and by the suffering of His body. It is our turn to accept this Lord as our Savior and God and lead a Christian life full of virtues required of a good Christian, a life without sin.
We wish you a very Blessed Pascha!