Trampling … and Other Great Easter Words

Newness and violence are inextricably related. I was reminded of this last night as the massive spring storms moved across the central U.S. even as Orthodox churches throughout the region were ringing in the news that Christ is risen from the dead, during the midnight Pascha service. (Today, not last Sunday, is Pascha – or Easter – on the Orthodox Christian calendar.)

It reminds me of Mat. 11:12, where we find Jesus’ unexpected declaration, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This verse is notoriously difficult to interpret. Some have even go so far as to translate the Greek back into Aramaic in order to speculate what Jesus actually said (since Aramaic was Jesus’ native language). When one does that, it is possible (some even argue it’s likely) that the violence becomes passive: “The Kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent are trying to snatch it away.”

I’m not going to weigh in on precisely what this verse means except to note that Jesus recognized that the Resurrection and the resulting Kingdom were inextricably tied to violence. (Although I will note that the traditional interpretation is that we are called on to inflict the violence on ourselves. Our desire to please ourselves rather than please God is so overwhelming that we must “violently” practice discipline – not in the pre-Reformation Martin Luther sense of beating oneself with whips, but rather the violence of eating vegetables when one desperately wants a hamburger or giving away a hundred dollars when one desperately wants to update an ancient smart phone. And anyone who has attempted to observe Lent in gratitude to God for all that he has given, the idea that these are violent actions against the self is obvious.)

The new order creates violence, not because it is inherently violent, but rather because the old corrupt order does not want to be replaced. In the wildly and wonderfully excessive language of the apocalyptic tradition, the newness of the Kingdom, the action of God’s “mighty arm,” is expressed as the fabric of the sky being torn open, mountains being toppled into the sea, the sun going dark, and the stars falling (or being cast down) from heaven.

That imagery is not unlike the spring storms that ravage the central part of the U.S. every year at the time we celebrate the resurrection of Christ as he “tramples down” (now there’s a violent image!) “death by death …”

For those of us who just want to blend in, who go to church but don’t want to make waves, who believe that Christians ought to just be good citizens and not rabble rousers, who believe that they don’t have to work very hard at their faith because salvation is free and God’s grace covers all, we should learn from this confluence (which is by no means accidental!) of the season of spring and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. (This is the Paschal Troparion , which is sung ad infinitum during the Paschal service and in the weeks that follow.) (And at this point, a bolt of lightning from an ominous black cloud, a thunder clap and an onslaught of hail, followed by a crystal-clear sunrise, would be appropriate. I suspect that is how we ought to translate the Paschal Troparion into the language of nature.)

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