Trampling Down Death By (Our Own) Death

July 8, 2017

 

The Paschal troparion—the central Easter hymn of the Eastern Orthodox Church—includes the famous expression that “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” But what does this mean? Among many other nuances, it suggests that God became incarnate through his kenosis (self-emptying) to allow himself—through his obedience in Gethsemane that reversed Adam’s disobedience in Eden—to be killed as per his humanity and therein have access to death. But since death could not hold down the Son of God, it was through his divinity that he was able to conquer death — death that we are no longer to multiply. The resurrection is an embodied life ethic.

 

The context, often missed, of this hymn includes both the killers and the killed, the ones who succumbed to and carried out the violence of the mob and the One who absorbed this violence “although he had done no violence” (Is. 53:9).

 

Like in any age of empire and imperial collaborators, the glorification and celebration of the military is marked by gratitude for killing the faceless Other whom we fear so that we can keep our wealth and comfortable lifestyle through our exploitation of the regions in which we fight. But this is to undermine the Paschal troparion, which insinuates that Christ conquered death by his own death — not by the death of others, not by killing others.

 

Any military is the mob and Roman Empire that killed God Incarnate, but we are each called to be like Christ who told Pilate that his servants don’t fight because his kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36) and told Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jn. 18:11). Peter finally understood this when he wrote in his first epistles, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pt. 2:21) and we too can participate in the resurrection of Christ.

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