Dying With Christ
by Jacob Sparks
I will first state the obvious: Lent is difficult for Orthodox Christians. We spend over forty days reorienting our life in strange ways: we fast from meat and dairy, go to more and longer church services, pray more, make more prostrations, read more spiritual material, etc. And then after these forty days, we spend Holy Week remembering the last week of Christ through more services that walk us through it step by step. This culminates in the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion on Holy Friday followed by the commemoration of his resurrection on Pascha. After this, we break the fast in celebration of the resurrection.
And so what? Why do we go to all this trouble to do these things in preparation for Pascha? Indeed, if we are simply remembering things that happened long ago, why do we go to such lengths to recall these past events? What significance does the crucifixion and resurrection have in our modern-day lives that are two-thousand years distant from the life of Christ?
These are questions that are, in my opinion, necessary to ask. They are questions that have (and still do, at times) pop into my head in the middle of Lent when I would rather be eating a cheeseburger than tofu and would rather be watching a movie than going to church or praying. If we do not know why we are doing what we do, we will not have the strength to endure the intensity of fasting and prayer during Lent.
I think the first thing that we need to realize to answer these questions is that the life of Christ is not only a past event. Rather, the life of Christ is something we directly partake of in the present moment of our lives. This is demonstrated by the language of the last hymn of Sunday Matins before the Divine Liturgy begins (1):
The language of “today” demonstrates the true reality of what is occurring in the services of the Church- we are receiving our salvation here and now, in the present moment. This happens through hearing the words of Christ in the Gospel, before and after which we chant “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You.” We are not merely remembering Christ’s words as if they were written down long ago but are now no more, but instead we hear the words of the Gospel from Christ himself, and we give thanks to Christ himself. Thus, we chant “Glory to You, O Lord…” after the reading of the Gospel because Christ himself is mystically present with us in the Liturgy, and he himself is giving us his words and teaching. Similarly, when we hear the priest say “Take, eat, this is my body…” and “Drink of this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant…” we are not merely hearing the words of a priest on a Sunday morning in the 21st century, but are instead with Christ in the upper room, celebrating the Passover meal with him and his disciples. We are instructed by Christ to eat his body and drink his blood, and we receive his body and blood from Christ himself. Thus, what is occurring in the Liturgy is not merely a remembering of things Christ said and did in the past, but is rather a re-presentation of them, a mystical joining of time and space to bring the body and blood of Christ that was incarnate in first century Bethlehem to us in the present moment.
Once we understand that we are not merely remembering the life of Christ in the Liturgy, but instead participating in the life of Christ, our entire Lenten experience becomes more meaningful. When we fast for forty days and are tempted to sin, we are mystically present with Christ in the desert when he is tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). When we go the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Thursday morning, we are with Christ and his disciples in the upper room as they eat the Passover together (Matthew 26:17-29). When we go the service of the twelve passion gospels on Holy Thursday evening, we are witnessing the crucifixion of Christ. We proclaim this openly during the service (2):
More than this, we are also witnessing our own crucifixion with Christ. The Apostle Paul links Christ’s death with our own death in 2 Corinthians:
The Apostle also says similar things in his epistle to the Galatians:
Having died with Christ on Holy Friday, we are also raised with him in glory on the third day in our celebration of Pascha:
I think that this understanding of Great Lent and Holy Week is instrumental in us being able to go through the prayers and fasting that the Church offers us with a sense of purpose. Christ, being true God and true Man, has united himself to us completely, even in our experience of temptation and difficulty during prayer and fasting, and indeed, even in our own death and resurrection. When Christ dies, we die with him. When Christ rises from the dead, we too are risen from the dead with him. May God grant us the strength necessary to go through Great Lent and arrive at his glorious resurrection through dying and rising with him.
1: Ages Initiative, “The Service of Matins.” https://www.agesinitiatives.com/dcs/public/dcs/p/s/2019/03/24/ma/en/se.m03.d24.ma.pdf
2: YouTube, “Today He is Hung upon the Tree.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bG4N2I5g0vE