The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Beginning in the 1920’s, being a person of faith in the Soviet Union came with tremendous risk. Under the rule of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet government undertook an anti-religious campaign beginning with the drafting of legislation severely prohibiting religious activities and calling for a re-education process for the populace in order to disseminate an agenda called Scientific Atheism. The main target of this campaign was Christianity, specifically the Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Over the next decade and a half nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, would be shot or sent to labor camps. The total number of Christian victims under the Soviet regime is estimated to range from 12 to 20 million people. Theological schools were closed and church publications were prohibited. More than 106,000 Russian Orthodox priests were shot between 1937-194. Only a twelfth of the Russian Orthodox Church’s priests were left functioning in their parishes by 1941. All of this makes the following incident, recalled by Dr. George Sweeting, which took place in the early 1920s, particularly profound.
During a reeducation event Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin was sent from Moscow to Kiev to address an anti-God rally. For an hour he abused and ridiculed the Christian faith until it seemed as if the whole structure of belief was in ruins. Then questions were invited. An Orthodox priest rose, asked to speak and was granted permission. He turned, faced the people and issued the Easter acclamation: “Alleluia. Christ is risen!” Instantly, the assembly of thousands rose to its feet and the reply came back loud and clear. “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” The priest resumed his seat.
For those of us in the United States, we don’t live in fear of religious persecution, what’s more, it’s easy to take our faith with a healthy dollop of skepticism. James Martin writes: “If you don’t believe in the Resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring Jesus the man, appreciating his example and even putting into practice some of his teachings. At the same time, you can set aside those teachings that you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable—say, forgiving your enemies, praying for your persecutors, living simply or helping the poor. You can set them aside because he’s just another teacher. A great one, to be sure, but just one of many. (But) if you believe that Jesus was who he said he was, and that he rose from the dead…everything changes. In that case you cannot set aside any of Jesus’s teachings. Because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority is someone who needs to be listened to. The risen Christ is a Lord with whom we need to reckon.
Which is what brings us to the most joyful news of the Easter story. It is, at once, an appalling and astonishing tale. In truth, if it’s not hard to believe, you’ve probably not been paying attention.
In Luke’s account, the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James arrive at the tomb at dawn and find the stone rolled away. Going in, they do not find the body. Then, two men in dazzling clothes (presumably angels) stand beside them and say: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified and on the third day rise again.” The women remembered, and told this to the eleven. But these words seemed to the apostles to be an idle tale, and they did not believe.
Hear that? Even the apostles were skeptical. Let’s face it, the Easter news is hard to digest. It cannot be tamed—though, heaven knows, we’ve tried. Over the years I’ve heard theologians argue that the resurrection is a symbol, a myth or a metaphor—all of them hollow substitutes for the astonishing and audacious claims of those who experienced the presence of the risen Lord. Really, do we think the women ran from the tomb to the disciples on account of their discovery of a metaphor? Do we think this is the reason that those same apostles spent the rest of their lives travelling to far flung places of the world to speak of the risen Christ, the majority of them suffering and dying for their faith, based on a myth? Do we think those 106,000 Orthodox Clergy, shot by their government, believed they were dying for a symbol? I don’t. I believe they died for their belief in the risen Lord—a God who triumphs over the power of devil and death.
We live in a skeptical age. It’s hard to know who to believe—truth is elusive and misinformation so often appears to hold a winning hand. Even so, we Christians should not be opposed to skepticism. The Easter story reminds us that even the disciples believed the women’s account was dubious. On this day we are reminded that at the heart of the Easter Gospel is the proclamation not of a symbol, metaphor or myth—but rather a mystery. Resurrection is a mystery—and it is that mystery which is central to our faith. It’s the kind of understanding which causes people to rise to their feet in the face of an oppressive government and proclaim the truth of the risen Christ, no matter the cost.
I ponder that Orthodox priest of a hundred years ago, braving the power of the Soviet state to stand up and proclaim the resurrection—and I marvel at the people’s definitive response. That takes courage—but also faith. A deep faith. It is a faith which refuses to align itself with any political power, but whose sole allegiance is to the Lord of Life. Which is one of the reasons why the Russian Orthodox Church’s alignment of itself with the Russian State in support of the invasion of Ukraine is so deeply egregious and appalling. It is, I believe, an affront to the millions of Christians in the Soviet Union who gave their lives in commitment to their faith in Christ in earlier decades.
St. Paul, writing to the people of Corinth conveys the central importance of the resurrection. In this morning’s Epistle he reminds us that the real enemy defeated by Christ wasn’t a government or a principality but Death. A glance at the headlines tells us that our world is filled with strife, contention and warfare. On one level, this is true. But the larger truth which we celebrate on this day speaks of a profound mystery—that of life, of joy and of grace. This is a truth which speaks life to the forces of oppression and death. It is a truth which reveals its greatest glory as it calls forth life from the grave. This is our truth—one which gives life, not only to those in the tomb—but also those who labor in the midst of a frightening world. It is our Savior’s truth—given so that we might find hope and peace.
In the words of John of Damascus:
Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
the world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen, their notes of gladness blend;
for Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end.
In the name of the risen Christ. Alleluia! Amen.