Today the Eastern Churches celebrate Pascha. This is an opportunity for us to catch up and post the translation of the Easter sermon Pradusz preached last week, first during the Easter Vigil in the KGIJ, and then, slightly changed, on the Easter morning in the Dutch Protestant Association Church in Driebergen. The version below is a sort of compilation of the two original ones.
The reference to Paschal Vigil in Moscow in the text was given a new meaning for us yesterday evening. We too were at Easter Vigil in such a little church full of people in a city which, however in a free country, is certainly not more ready to listen to the Easter message than the 1937 Moscow, and possibly even less. And we too read there the Gospel about the Light that shines in the darkness, and Christ rose from the dead in the Russian Orthodox Church in Groningen, the Netherlands…
1 Corintians 1:18-25
For the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who perish; but unto us who are saved, it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
What is wise?
This question was to be heard everywhere we gathered for this year’s “huiskamergesprekken” [a series of discussion meetings organized each year around a certain topic in the homes of the KGIJ members]. It is to be heard, without a doubt, in many homes where people discuss the personal consequences of both the economic crisis itself and the measures those who govern us deem necessary to fight it. We hope that it is to be heard from time to time also in the offices of our government, in Brussels, and in Strasbourg; that wise, lasting solutions are sought, and not only short-term measures. And this is what we hope for also for ourselves: both personally and as members of a congregation which will shortly have to face many difficult challenges.
What is wise?
Did Jesus ask this question too? When we read the Gospels, we sometimes get the impression that he knew the answer to every question in advance. So perhaps there is nothing strange in what some people say: JESUS HAS THE ANSWER (OR IS THE ANSWER) TO ALL YOUR QUESTIONS. Yet I don’t believe it at all! Even if we confess Jesus as the Son of God, which I do with all my heart (and especially when I listen to J.S. Bach’s St. Mathew Passion, where this title is perceived as blasphemy – for then you can realize that it’s not a dogma meant to give us the sense that we believe “as we should”, but rather a challenge of the authorities, a challenge that they treat as an offence!), it cannot deny the simple fact that he was a human being, who, as we all, had to look for his own answers first; who, as we all, looked for his purpose in life, his calling. Only such Jesus is interesting to me. Only with such a Saviour can I identify. Only an encounter with someone who is fully human, as human as possible, can have a redeeming, liberating meaning for me. And only such encounter can be at the same time an encounter with the living God…
Did Jesus ask the question what is wise? When did he actually realize that his way was a “dead end road”, the way of the cross? And what does our GPS say when we are on such a road? “Turn around!”, “Turn around now!”. And everyone knows that it is not wise not to listen to it. For it’s our best interest that is at stake here, and sometimes it’s even about self-preservation. Do not enter dead end roads, choose what is certain and not what is uncertain, don’t take unnecessary risks, don’t confront danger that can be avoided. You have to count and calculate well. That’s wisdom! It’s the wisdom of life, coming from experience. The opposite is simple foolishness. So whoever doesn’t act like that, is proclaimed a fool or a lunatic. Bu this is where St. Paul comes suddenly, saying:
For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.
For there is the wisdom of life, but there is also the Paschal wisdom: the wisdom of Easter. And this wisdom says that it’s the one who doesn’t act in his best interest and doesn’t preserve himself at all costs that will find life in abundance. It is this “foolishness of God” that eventually turns out to be “wiser than men”. It is this “weakness of God”, vulnerability, defenselessness, that “is stronger than men”. The logic of the grain of wheat:
Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
It was in 1937. A Dutchman by the name of Piotr Hendrix went to Moscow. Not in order to witness “the successful progress of Communism”, but… to celebrate Easter. In a city where there was hardly a functioning church left, where believers were regularly persecuted. Please note – it was 1937, the apex of Stalin’s terror. Glorious churches in the city centre could not be used for “the foolishness of preaching”. Only on the outskirts a few little churches were not closed. One of them, in Dologomirovo, was out of necessity made a sobor (cathedral). On the vigil of Easter it was full. Hendrix couldn’t even get inside. The service had already started and suddenly the lights went on again and one could hear ecstatic cries “Christos voskrese” – Christ is Risen. “Voistinno voskrese” – He is risen indeed, Hendrix answered, like everyone else. And later he wrote about this:
IT HAPPENED THEN. CHRIST ROSE FROM THE DEAD IN MOSCOW, IN A LITTLE CHURCH ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE CITY WHICH WAS NOT LISTENING, AND WHICH WAS NOT ALLOWED TO LISTEN, TO THE NEWS OF HIS RESURRECTION.
This “then” is essential! Then… Even not “then in Jerusalem”, but “then in Moscow” – for Hendrix thus HERE AND NOW. When the Jews celebrate Pesach, they say: “We were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord God took us out from there with a strong hand”. Not “our ancestors once upon the time”, but US: here and now. If you want to experience Pascha, truly EXPERIENCE Pascha, the first question is not about what happened then, but about what is happening now: with you, with me, with us, our community, our country, our world. What are our “Egypts” and our “Good Fridays”? In what ways are we enslaved and crucified? We and millions of others. What or who takes our freedom away, what or who (perhaps we ourselves?) doesn’t give us a chance to live? And how do we find a new way: a way of liberation, a way of resurrection? How do we employ the crazy logic of Easter to ourselves and people we share our lives with? The Easter story does not take place in the past. It is our story, a story that again and again wants to become our story – a story of our liberation and our resurrection. It is a story about the world turned upside down, a story that challenges us to turn our wisdom upside down – the wisdom of life based on being cautious and the estimation of probability. Good Fridays will come back in our lives, and wisdom means finding a way to make them Easter mornings. Without justifying anything, without easy, cheap consolations, without questioning the reality of death and destruction
a human will find, if he or she wants, a reason to conspire quietly with light in the darkness of his or her loneliness – such a simple token of time.
This is Pascha. This is what we celebrate this evening/this morning. This is what we try to celebrate every time we come together, also when we come together to bid farewell to a loved one. All other things we associate with Easter, are symbols supposed to help us express and make concrete the crazy wisdom (we should remember here that the term “symbol” does not denote something unreal, but rather something that transcends reality and shows its hidden meaning!): the open tomb, the Resurrected One appearing amidst the community. One of such symbolic images recently speaks to me particularly. It is the Pieta of Michelangelo from St. Peter’s in Rome. In art a Pieta is a depiction of Mary with dead Jesus. But Michelangelo’s Pieta means more than that. Not only because of its exceptional beauty, but also because certain details point at other possible meanings. As a true master Michelangelo shows the grief of a mother who lost her son. But when you look carefully, you can see more. The mother is young. It is a young woman, younger than the son. Apart from that, her size exceeds human proportions. And he? He is dead, but his veins are filled with blood as someone who is alive or coming back to life. It cannot be a mistake, for Michelangelo studied enough human corpses to know very well how a dead human being looks like. It has to be meaningful somehow. In one of our celebrations a few months ago we talked about the fact that for both the ancient Semites and Greeks Wisdom was originally a goddess: forever young, virgin goddess of life, divine mother, who with her gentle power brought everything to life. Did Michelangelo, apart from the traditional meaning, want to show also this: a dead man who, having followed his path to the end, returns to the motherly source, in order to be raised again? Could this be, apart from a depiction of the unimaginable suffering of a mother who lost her child, also a depiction of new beginning, of Pascha? I think so…