The Gospel on the Victory Over Death
by Saint Nikolai Velimirović
he frozen gather around the fire; the famished gather around the table; those who have endured great suffering through the long night rejoice at the sunrise; those exhausted by fierce battles cheer an unexpected victory. O risen Lord, Thou hast, by Thy Resurrection, become all things to all men! O most rich King, Thou hast, with one gift, filled all the empty hands stretched heavenward! Rejoice, O ye heavens and, O ye earth, rejoice! Rejoice, O ye heavens, as a mother rejoices when she feeds her hungry children; rejoice O ye earth, as children rejoice on receiving nourishment from their mother's hands!
Christ's victory is the only victory in which all humanity can rejoice. from the first-created to the last. Every other victory on earth has divided, and still divides, men from one another. When an earthly king gains the victory over another king, one of them rejoices and the other laments. When a man is victorious over his neighbor, there is singing under one roof and weeping under the other. There is no joyful victory on earth that is not poisoned by malice: the ordinary, earthly victor rejoices both in his laughter and in the tears of his conquered enemy. He does not even notice how evil cuts through joy.
When Tamerlaine was victorious over Sultan Bayazit, he put the latter in an iron cage and held a victory feast in front of it. His malice was his whole joy; his wickedness was food for his mirth. Oh, my brethren, how brief a joy is malice! Oh, how poisonous a food for high spirits is evil! When King Stefan Uroš III of Dečani [Serbia] was victorious over the Bulgarian king, he would not enter Bulgarian lands, nor take the Bulgarian people prisoner, but in deep distress went off to a hermitage to fast and pray. This latter victor was more noble than the former. But this victory, as every victory, was not without its barb for the conquered. And even the most exalted human history is like some sun, the rays of which are half bright, half dark.
Christ's victory alone is like a sun that sheds brilliant shafts of light on all that are beneath it. Christ's victory alone fills all the souls of men with invincible joy. It alone is without malice or evil.
A mysterious victory, you will say? It is; but it is at the same time revealed to the entire human race—the living and the dead.
A generous victory, you will say? It is, and more than generous. Is not a mother more than generous when she, not just once or twice, saves her children from snakes but, in order to save them for all time, goes bravely into the snakes' very nest and burns them out?
A healing victory, you will say? It is, healing and saving forever and ever. This gentle victory saves men from every evil and makes them sinless and immortal. Immortality without sinlessness would mean only the extending of evil's reign, and of that of malice and wickedness, but immortality with sinlessness gives birth to unrestrained joy, and makes men the brethren of God's resplendent angels.
Who would not rejoice in the victory of Christ the Lord? He was not victorious for His own sake, but for ours. His victory did not make Him greater, or more alive, or richer, but it did us. His victory is not selfishness, but love, not grabbing but giving. Earthly conquerors take the victory; Christ is the only Conqueror who gives it freely. No single earthly conqueror, king or commander desires that his victory be taken from him and given to another; only the risen Lord offers His victory with both hands to each one of us, and is not angered but rather rejoices when we, by His victory, become victors—that is: greater, more alive and richer than we were.
Earthly victories look better when viewed from afar, but uglier and more repulsive when seen close at hand; while, as for Christ's victory, one could not say whence it looks better, from afar or from close at hand. Looking at this victory from afar, we marvel at it as unique in its brightness, purity and saving grace. Looking at it from close at hand, we marvel at it because of the terrible enemies who are overcome by it, and also because of the vast numbers of slaves who by it are set free. Today is the day above all other days in the year consecrated to the celebration of this victory of Christ's, and so it is fitting to look at this victory from close at hand, both for our better knowledge and for our greater joy.
Let us, then, draw near to our risen and victorious Lord and ask ourselves:
Firstly: over whom was He victorious by His Resurrection?
Secondly: whom has He freed by His victory?
By His Resurrection, the Lord overcame the two most fierce enemies of human life and dignity: death and sin. These two enemies of the human race were born when the first man severed himself from God, treading underfoot the commandments about obedience to his Creator. In Paradise mankind knew neither death nor sin, neither fear nor shame. For, adhering to the living God, man could know nothing of death, and, living in perfect obedience to God, could know nothing of sin. Where death is unknown, there is no fear and where sin is unknown, there is no shame born of sin. As soon as man sinned against his saving obedience to God, both fear and shame came with the sin: man felt himself infinitely far from God, and had a premonition of death's harvesting blade over him. Therefore, when God called to Adam, and asked: "Where art thou?", he said: "I heard Thy voice in the garden and was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself" (Genesis 3:9-10). Up until then, God's voice had encouraged, gladdened and enlivened Adam, but then, when the sin had been committed, this same voice weakened, terrified and deadened him. Up until then, Adam knew himself to be clad in the immortal attire of the angels, but he then knew himself deflowered by sin, looted, debased to the level of the animals and reduced to revealing nakedness. So, my brethren, you see how terrible is the least sin of disobedience to God? Becoming afraid of God, Adam hid himself amongst the trees of the garden—like a domestic cat that, when it goes wild, makes for the hills and begins to hide from its owner and the hand that feeds it! From irrational animals, over which Adam had until then had full authority, he began to seek protection aside from his Protector. One sin, with lightning-like speed, attracted a second, third, hundredth, thousandth, until man finally became himself a beast, beastly, and of the earth, earthly, in both body and soul. The sinful path on which Adam set out led him from Paradise to earth and into earthly exile. And God said: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19), expressing not only God's judgment but also a further process in man's earthly exile and fragmentation, only just begun but making quick progress.
Adam's descendants, generation after generation, became more and more earthbound and fragmented, sinning with shame and dying with fear and horror. Men hid from God amongst trees, rocks, gold and dust; but the more they hid themselves, the more separated they became from the true God, and the more they forgot Him. Nature, that had once lain before mankind’s feet, gradually grew up above his head, so that in the end it completely concealed God's face from him and took His place. And man began to make a god of nature: listening to it, behaving in accordance with it, praying to it and bringing it sacrifices. But the deifying of nature was not able to save either it or man from death and decay. The terrible path that mankind was following was the path of sin; and this disastrous path led unrelentingly to one gloomy city, and one alone: the city of the dead. Kings of the earth ruled over men; sin and death ruled over both men and kings. The further it went, the greater the burden of sin grew, like a snowball when it rolls downhill. The human race had reached the depths of despair when the heavenly Hero appeared to save it.
This Hero was the Lord Jesus. Eternally sinless and eternally immortal, He passed through the graveyard of the human race, scattering the flowers of immortality as He went. The stench of sin fled from before His breath, and the dead were revived at His word. But He, in His love for mankind, took the mountain of sin upon Himself, in the same way that He, in His love for mankind, clothed Himself in mortal, human flesh. But human sin was so heavy and terrible that, under its weight, the Son of God Himself went down to the grave. Blessed an hundredfold be that grave from which a river of immortality for the whole human race burst forth! The Hero went down beneath the grave to Hades, where He toppled Satan's throne and destroyed the breeding-ground of all the wicked plots against the human race. From this grave the Hero rose to the highest heavens, opening up a new path—a new path to the city of the living. He destroyed hell in His might and, in His might, glorified His body and rose from the grave—in His own might, indivisible from the Father and the Holy Spirit. Meek as a lamb, the gentle Lord went to suffering and death, and mighty as God He endured the suffering and conquered death. His Resurrection is an undeniable event, and is at the same time the prophecy and the image of our resurrection—for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:52).
There are some who will ask: how can it be said that the risen Lord has conquered death, when men still die? They who come into this world through their mother's womb will leave it through death and the grave. This is the rule. Only, death for us who die in Christ is no longer a dark abyss, but is birth into new life and a return to our paradisaical homeland. [Even death is become a saving grace from an eternity of exile and beastliness, from sin and separation from God.] The grave is, for us, no longer an eternal darkness but a gateway at which God's resplendent angels await us. For all who are filled with love for the beauteous and loving Lord, the grave has become only the last obstacle to His presence—and this obstacle is as weak as a spider's web. And so the glorious Apostle Paul cries: "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). How has the Lord not conquered death, when death is no more visible in His presence? The grave is no more a deep abyss, because He has filled it with Himself; neither is the grave any longer dark, because He has illumined it; neither is it any more to be dreadful and feared, for it does not mark the end but the beginning; neither is it our eternal moldering homeland, but only the door to that paradisiacal homeland. The difference between death before Christ's Resurrection and death after it is like the difference between a terrible conflagration and the flame of a candle. Christ's victory is fundamental, and therefore, through Him, death is swallowed up in victory, (1 Corinthians 15:-54).
There are others who will ask: how can it be said that the risen Lord has conquered sin, when men still sin? The Lord has indeed conquered sin. He conquered it by His sinless conception and birth, then by His pure and sinless life on earth; then by His suffering on the Cross, being righteous; and finally He crowned this conquest by His glorious Resurrection. He became the medicine, the appropriate and infallible antidote against sin. He who is infected by sin can only be healed by Christ. He who wants not to sin can with Christ's help only make this desire a reality. When mankind found a cure for smallpox, they said: we have conquered this disease! They said the same thing when they discovered a remedy for tonsillitis, toothache, gout and other similar disorders: we have overcome them! The finding of a cure for an illness, then, means the conquering of it. Christ is by far the greatest Physician in human history, for He brought mankind the cure for his profound principal ailment—for sin, from which all other sicknesses and all man's other sufferings, both physical and spiritual, are only symptoms. This medicine is He Himself, the risen and living Lord. He is the one and only effective Medicine for sin. If, even today, man sins and, by sinning comes to ruin, this does not mean that Christ did not conquer sin: It means only that such a man has chosen not to accept the one and only remedy against his mortal ailment; it means either that he does not sufficiently know Christ as healing Balm or, if he does know, he elects not, for one reason or another, to avail himself of Him Who is Healing. But history testifies, with thousand upon thousand of voices, that those who make use of this Medicine for their souls and take it into their bodies, are healed and made whole. Knowing the weakness of our being, the Lord Christ intended for the faithful to take Him as food and drink under the visible forms of bread and wine. This the Lover of Mankind did simply in order to facilitate their approach to the life-giving medicine for sin and the corruption brought about by sin. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me and I in him ... and he shall live by Me (John 6:56-7). Those who sin feed on sin, and the life that is in them is gradually lost through sin. Those, however, who feed on the living Lord feed on life, and the life within them is increased more and more while death diminishes. And as much as life is increased, so much is sin decreased. The insipid and shadowy sweetness of sin is replaced in them by the joyful and life-giving sweetness of Christ the Victor.
Blessed are they who have tested and experienced this mystery in their lives. They can be called the sons of light and children of grace. When the blesséd pass from this life, they will, as it were, leave the infirmary, being no longer sick men.
We ask ourselves now: Whom has the risen Lord freed by His victory over sin and death? People of only one nation, or a single race? People of one class or a particular social position? No! In no way. Such a freeing would, in its essentials, be the malicious victory of earthly conquerors. The Lord is not called "Lover of the Jews", or "Lover of the Greeks", or "Lover of the poor", or "Lover of the aristocrats", but "Lover of mankind". He intended His victory to be for all mankind, with no consideration of the differences that men make among themselves. He won His victory for the good and the help of all mankind, and offers it to all. To those who accept this victory and make it their own, He promises eternal life and co-inheritance in the heavenly Kingdom. He imposes this victory on no one, even though it cost so dearly, but leaves mankind free to make it their own or not. As man in paradise freely chose the fall, death and sin at the hands of Satan, so he is now free to choose life and salvation at the hands of God the Victor. Christ's victory is a life-giving balm for all men, all having become leprous from sin and death.
This balm makes the sick well, and the well even healthier.
This balm raises the dead and gives fuller life to the living.
This balm makes a man wise, ennobles and deifies him; it increases his strength an hundredfold, a thousandfold, and it raises his dignity far above all other nature, in its weakened state, even to the resplendence and beauty of God's angels and archangels.
O most lovely and life-giving balm! What hand would not take hold of you? What heart would not apply you to its wounds? What throat would not sing your praises? What pen would not record the wonders you have wrought? What abacus would not count up all your healings of the sick and raisings of the dead up until now? What tears would not be shed in gratitude to you?
Come then, all you my brethren who fear death. Come closer to Christ the Risen and the Raiser, and He will free you from death and the fear of death.
Come, all of you who live under the shame of your open and secret sins. Draw nearer to the living Fount that washes and cleanses, and that can make the blackest vessel whiter than snow.
Come, all of you who seek health, strength, beauty and joy. Lo, the risen Christ is the rich Source of them all. He awaits you with compassion and yearning, desiring that no one be lost.
Bow down before Him, in body and soul. Unite yourself with Him with all your mind and thoughts. Embrace Him with all your heart. Do not worship the enslaver, but the Liberator; do not unite yourself to the destroyer, but to the Savior; do not embrace the stranger, but your closest Kinsman and your dearest Friend.
The risen Lord is the Wonder of wonders, but He is, while being the Wonder of wonders, of the same nature as you are—of real human nature, the primal nature that was Adam's in Paradise. True human nature was not created to be enslaved to the irrational nature that surrounds it, but to govern nature by its power. Neither does man's true nature consist in worthlessness, sickness, mortality and sinfulness, but in glory and health, in immorality and sinlessness.
The risen Lord has torn down the curtain that divided true Godhead from true humanity, and has shown us in Himself the greatness and beauty of the one and the other. No man can know the true God except through the risen Lord Jesus; neither can any man know true man except through Him alone.
By His Resurrection, Christ conquered sin and death, destroyed Satan's dark kingdom, freeing the enslaved human race and braking the seal on the greatest mysteries of God and man. To Him be glory and praise, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit—the Trinity consubstantial and undivided, now and forever, through all time and eternity. Amen.
O O O
Nikolai Velimirović, Bishop of Ochrid, Homilies: A Commentary on the Gospel Readings For Great Feats and Sundays Throughout The Year (Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1996) 205-11.