By death He trampled death
I love Easter so much that it is hard to write about it. I cry thinking about it. It is the most full of true joy, the most expressive of God’s mercy, the most heaven-like experience in the liturgical year. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the chaotic world, or what suffering I might be enduring at the time it falls, because it is about victory over all of that and about the most complete love. It is my safest place on earth.
I struggle with some serious anxiety and fear, and for years I have tried various medications, loads of supplements, lots of prayer, mindfulness, and many kinds of therapy. Quite a few of these involve imagining your “safe place,” which, apparently, for many people is a beautiful beach. For me, although the beach is one of my favorite places to be, it is certainly not safe. In addition to the dangers particular to the place (drowning, typhoons, hurricanes, tidal waves, sharks, etc.), any psycho could show up and start killing people or kidnapping my children. I cannot imagine a truly safe place on earth, so when I do this exercise, I imagine Heaven...I am at the throne of God in the center of an immaculate garden of cherry blossoms, gardenias, fountains and mossy cobblestones. I am a little girl, cuddled up on His lap, secure in His arms, and He is looking at me with utter delight. Mother Mary is
standing near with her arm around me, her gorgeous Japanese silk mantle thrown about me. The hauntingly beautiful tones of the Melkite liturgy are being joyfully chanted in Arabic. Jesus, St. Nicholas and my five children who have already made it to Heaven are dancing and laughing together, welcoming me. And there is nothing at all that could harm me, hurt me, or scare me. Easter is as close I get to this perfect place before I die.
In the East it is called Pascha, the “feast of feasts,” and it is the ultimate holy day. We begin with Paschal Matins, processing around the church. When we end up at the closed door of the church, the priest reads the Gospel about finding the empty tomb, bangs on the door three times, and cries, “Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.” From the other side of the door comes the question, “Who is this King of Glory?” to which the priest responds, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war. Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.” We remember that our King of Glory has just vanquished Satan, overthrown his kingdom, and rescued the long-waiting souls of the just from Hades, and is here now to rescue us.
Once we have all entered the church, we begin to sing the Paschal troparion, which we will sing throughout the season (we sing it every day at home, too, for the next 50 days, until the close of Easter with the feast of Pentecost): “Christ is risen from the dead! By death he trampled death, and to those in tomb He granted life.” We sing it over and over, with increasing vigor, the church resounding with the triumphant sound of loud stomping (or even jumping in some cases) on the Devil when we come to the words “trampled death.” The candle stands are full, the smell of incense rises like our joyful prayers, and we join with all the saints to celebrate the triumph of Our Lord - there is nothing more beautiful! And we are again reminded that it is by His willing offering up of his spirit, being separated from his human body, and descending into Hades to release the long-dead that He transforms our misery into victory. As Alexander Schmemann says, “In the understanding of the Church, sorrow is not replaced by joy; it is transformed into joy. This distinction indicates that it is precisely within death that Christ continues to effect triumph.”
The very long liturgy is also punctuated throughout by the priests and deacons shouting victoriously, “Christ is risen!” to which all the people shout, “Indeed, He is risen!” in English, Greek, Slavonic, and other languages. It is funny to think that before I joined the Catholic Church, I thought of it as empty religion, a distraction from Christ, but It is the antithesis of empty, dead religion - it is the greatest celebration of life and love.
My favorite part is the reading of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily, which the Church considers authoritative enough to have decided it should be read at every Paschal liturgy. I cannot hear it without tears...I just need you to read the whole thing (only a few paragraphs, don't worry!) because it is so magnificent…
If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hades, He made Hades captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hades, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
Every year on the first Sunday of Easter we host an open-invitation garden party, welcoming all to celebrate the thing most worth celebrating - Christ’s victory over death and His overwhelming love & sacrifice that set us free. At our party, we again read aloud the exhilarating sermon of St. John Chrysostom, we have an egg hunt, a confetti egg war, medieval egg dancing, Easter themed cocktails, & of course a wonderful feast. We break the fast with aplomb - On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines (Isa. 25:6). It is my favorite party on my favorite day - a day when my fear of death, pain, loneliness, and suffering is conquered by death - trampled on by Our Resurrected Savior and an army of stomping souls who stand beside me to cheer the war won.