This Easter, I was introduced to perhaps the oldest Easter sermon on record. It was written and first preached by St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), the Archbishop of Constantinople and an important “Early Church Father” who shaped, explained and promoted proper Christian doctrine for and on behalf of the nascent Church. In this sermon, we learn a lot about how Jesus’ death and resurrection was first understood.
A few things particularly struck me about this sermon:
Firstly, nowhere does this sermon talk about how Jesus died as a blood sacrifice for our sins (arguably the explanation most often given in contemporary “Western” Christianity). Instead, this ancient sermon talks about how Jesus, after he died, went to Hell and completely disempowered it, leaving Hell and its demons “embittered.” This word, repeated several times, means “resentful.” Such is the reaction of one who has been deceived, or tricked. It speaks of the arguably comical “Christus Victor” theory of atonement in which Jesus comes to earth posing as a human (and hence a sinner), but when he dies and goes to Hell (as all humans/sinners must), ta da!, he reveals his true identity! He's now able to bring the full power of God to destroying Hell’s hold on all creation.
Secondly, this sermon is not to be just “preached.” There is considerable “audience participation.” Every time the priest says "embittered," the congregation is to repeat it. Same with the word "risen." And every time the word "dead" or "death" is spoken, the congregation stomps its feet, just like Jesus stomped on Hell. This makes for a very lively experience. It reminds me of the festival of Purim and the traditional reading of the Book of Esther; there the Jewish congregation is to stomp its feet and boo and hiss and shake noisemakers every time the name of the villain Haman is mentioned.
St. John's comically-toned and playfully re-enacted sermon is still preached and “performed” every Easter in Eastern Orthodox churches everywhere.
I want to thank the youth of Trinity United Methodist Church in Waverly, Iowa for bringing it to life in rural Iowa of all places.
Here is the sermon, for your reading, repeating, and stomping enjoyment:
by St. John Chyrsostom
(d. 407 CE)
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.
He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: "Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions".
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept.
To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.