"O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?"
I am often asked to define Orthodox Christianity in only a few words or concepts. Those that immediately come to mind are asceticism, monasticism, the aesthetic principle (spiritualized beauty), repentance, and humility. A related word is “radiance,” for it encompasses the complete joy that the faithful experience after the struggle of the Great Fast (Lent), the long beautiful and prayerful services of Holy Week, and the entry into Christ’s suffering and ultimate triumph in His Resurrection.
During the Matins service of Saturday night, which is followed by the Midnight Office, and the Divine Liturgy (all of which are completed by approximately 2:30 a.m. on Sunday), the stirring Catechetical Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read by the priest to those present at the service. It is one of the most solemn moments of the service and simultaneously one of the most ecstatic.
Why? There are two reasons. The first has to do with the high esteem in which St. John is held in the Orthodox world. He is revered today, and he was dearly loved by his large flock in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) over seventeen hundred years ago. He assembled, codified, and wrote what we know today as the standard Divine Liturgy. There are several other liturgies that are celebrated at prescribed times of the year, but the liturgy of St. John is the most common and best-known.
The second reason, perhaps the most important one, has to do with the power of the words themselves. The term “Chrysostom” attached to St. John’s identity means “of the golden mouth” in Greek, and he was indeed a master of eloquence. The key attitudes of St. John’s sermon are: devotion, love, radiance, triumph, rejoicing, thankfulness, and God’s mercy and forgiveness.
What else is needed? Those who have fulfilled the requirements of the faith and the fast are welcomed to the Lord’s feast—just as those who have tarried and delayed in their commitments, for whatever reason, are welcomed. The weary are given rest, anxiety and guilt are taken away, and all celebrate together without regard for wealth or social station. In the Paschal victory “the universal kingdom has been revealed,” Christ has faced death and overcome it, and “not one dead remains in the grave.”
The sermon culminates with an expansion of I Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (King James Version):
“O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.”
No one, whether bishop or priest or parishioner in any of the Orthodox countries, can hear this sermon without fighting back tears. It is perfect in the thoughts it conveys. Nothing else needs to be added. Thus:
The Paschal Sermon, St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinoplei
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 Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, 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 thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art 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.
Valeria Z. Nollan is a past president of the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture. Her translation of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s The Philosophical Foundations of Integral Knowledge was published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in 2008. A lifelong Russian Orthodox Christian, she was the keynote speaker for the 62ndCommencement Exercises of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY in 2010.
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