“CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!” This greeting, exchanged throughout this season by Eastern Christians, is one of the hallmarks of our paschal feast. Although it is not used in the West, the faith it expresses is at the heart of every Christian community’s belief in every historic tradition.
Even before our written Gospels were compiled, faith in the resurrection was at the heart of the Christian message. As St Paul says, this teaching had been passed on to him by the first believers: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that, He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Corithians 15:3-8).
Christ’s resurrection was not merely accepted by the first Christians; it was recognized as the cornerstone of their faith. St Paul continues: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith also is empty” (vv. 13-14). The Christian faith would be empty if Christ were not risen. He might be an inspiring religious leader, but He would still be a failed one. His teachings might be accepted by some people but that in itself would not change our world. As Pope Benedict XVI of Rome noted, “In other words, we would be alone. Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world.”
What is new in Christ’s resurrection is that His humanity is fully transformed be the power of God. On one hand the risen Christ is not an incorporeal being; He was not reborn as a spirit without a body. Nor is He depicted as a heavenly being, radiant with glory. On the other hand, He was not simply returned to the life which He had before the crucifixion. The Gospels show us a risen Christ with a true human body, but one which has in some way been transformed. To quote Pope Benedict once more, the risen Christ is shown to have “an entirely new form of life,” “a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it – a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence…”
This life is open to those who live in Him since He is merely the “first-fruits” of a crop which includes us: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. … For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v.20-23).
The Resurrection Gospels
The four canonical Gospels contain a number of narratives on the resurrection. They are roughly divided into two groups. In the first we are told of the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalen, the other women and by the apostles Peter and John. The stone is rolled back from the entrance, the tomb is empty apart from the cloths in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped. The women are told by an angel (angels) that Jesus is not here – He is risen.
In the second group the risen Christ appears to His disciples in a variety of settings. Some of these appearances are in or around Jerusalem (the upper room, the road to Emmaus). Others are in Galilee where some disciples encounter Jesus by the lake as they are fishing, and finally “on the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them” (Matthew 28:16).
Commentators have noted that the stories describing Christ’s appearances in Jerusalem center on the inner life of the Church: the explanation of the Scriptures, the breaking of bread, the forgiving of sins, and table fellowship. The Galilee appearances are focused on the mission of the apostles to the world: proclaiming the Gospel, baptizing and teaching all nations. In both cases Christ’s disciples are offered hope and encouragement: by the promises that Christ is ever with them (Matthew 28:19) and that they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49).
In the Byzantine Churches one of these eleven resurrection narratives is read every Sunday at orthros/matins. On Pascha itself the second resurrection Gospel (Mark 16:1-8) is read at orthros before the closed door of the church, in the practice of the “southern” churches. Curiously there is no Gospel read at the Resurrection Matins in the Slavic Churches.
The Third Resurrection Gospel
One of the resurrection narratives merits some attention here. The third, Mk 16:9-20, is not found in many Greek manuscripts before the fifth century. It is also missing in some Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian translations.
However early Christian writers of the second century such as St Justin the Philosopher, Tatian and St Hippolytus of Rome cited elements of this passage as Scripture in their works, indicating that it was known in at least some places as integral to the Gospel. The passage has been part of the Byzantine lectionary since its formation.
Paschal or Agape Vespers (al-Baouth)
The Ninth Resurrection Gospel – or at least part of it – is read in a unique way at vespers on the evening of Pascha. The passage, Jn 20:19-25, tells of Christ’s appearance to His disciples “the same day at evening, being the first day of the week” (v.19). And so this selection is read at the same time as the events it describes. Thomas, who was not present when Christ appeared, did not believe the others and uttered rashly, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (v.25). The reading stops here to be picked up next Sunday when the end of the story (vv. 26-29) took place.
In the southern Byzantine Churches this passage is read in several languages, sometimes in as many languages as there are people able to read them. In some parishes the readers are stationed all around the church turning the nave into a world being evangelized by the apostles. The reading is followed by a procession which, whenever possible, goes outside the church through the neighborhood and into the cemetery while the Paschalia (stichera of Pascha) are chanted. Both the reading and the procession represent how the Church has carried out the apostolic commission to preach the Gospel to all nations.
In Slavic Churches this reading takes place at the Divine Liturgy instead. In some places the Gospel is read in many languages at both the Liturgy and at Paschal vespers. In some parishes the procession and/or prayer in the cemetery is postponed until after the Liturgy on Bright Monday.