There’s an ancient scriptural tradition (in both Judaism and Christianity) that a three day period of darkness and suffering must be endured before salvation can come. The most obvious example is of course, Christ’s three day internment in the tomb, but there are many Old Testament examples as well: Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly, Joshua’s spies who hid for three days while the enemy searched for them (Joshua 2).
There are some schools of Christian thought which argue that Christ’s death means that we need do absolutely nothing but accept Him in order to partake of His life. To most Orthodox-Catholics (and many Protestants also), such an idea seems radically unscriptural. Christ was very clear that He could bestow life only on those who ‘took up their Cross’ (Mt 16:25-25). To say so does not contradict the ‘grace’ of Christ’s gift – eternal life is given freely to all those who are willing to receive it. And receiving it, Christ makes very clear, is going to hurt.
Regardless of their theological positions, all true Christians know that following Christ means the death of something within them. Their pride, anger, selfish ambition and lust all have to be slain. And that process hurts. It’s easy to forget that this is what being a Christian means – Christ doesn’t beat around the bush. If we hang around Him, perhaps content to simply say a few meagre prayers every night and show up to Church on Sundays, He will quickly make us aware that He has far bigger plans for us. Plans to turn us into radiant, glorious, immortal angels of light (Wis. of Sol 3:7, Matt 13:43, Dan 12:3). But he can only give us life if we agree to die for Him. Not all of us have the strength to be physically tortured and killed for Christ, but all of us will certainly physically die, and Christian living requires us to become living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) to God.
But here is the stunning thing. The amazing, paradoxical, wondrous, world-shattering fact of it all: there is something glorious hidden in our sacrificial death. Christians who fall to the ground, broken and bleeding at the hands of kings and emperors, or those who pour out every inch of their being in service of Christ, have a stunningly consistent habit of not staying dead. They certainly appear weak, when they lie on the ground, utterly spent. But something unbelievable lies shrouded in their weakness … something deeper, older and truer than whatever dark power tears them down; something invincible.
You see, something terrible happened to our world after Adam and Eve’s sin. Appearances became ‘muddled’ … that is one of the dastardly effects of sin: it makes ‘evil good and good evil’ (Isaiah 5:20). God made this world good and beautiful. We certainly some of this beauty reflected in the stunning genius and grandeur of the natural world, but God’s crowning gift to this universe was something whose beauty overshadows even the Milky Way and whose power exceeds that of the most powerful star. He crowned the universe with beings in His Image: us. Icons of His glory, His power, His life. The secret to that power was the secret of His own being: Love. And back then, anyone with half a brain could tell then that love was incredibly powerful. It was love that sparked the Big Bang and created the universe, love that divided land from water, love that called stars and planets into being, love that gave the world its beauty. Love was the most powerful force known to angel, man or beast.
But when man fell from God, the knowledge of love was lost. In the fallen world, love no longer looked powerful. In fact, it looked weak. To express love, one had to sacrifice, and those who sacrificed were always made weaker through having done so. Power and might seemed to lie not in self-giving and self-sacrifice, but in their opposites: in the exercise of the will, in victory over your enemies, in pride and selfishness. The knowledge of true human power was lost for centuries; lost until a Jewish preacher said things like:
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? (Luke 9:24-25)
Christ made some utterly ridiculous claims. For Christ, strength lay in weakness, the appropriate attitude to one’s enemies was love, leadership was servitude, death was life. He was turning the logic of the fallen world upside down; and the pagans said as much of His disciples (Acts 17:6). And of course, He performed the ultimate expression of this ‘upside-down logic’ by submitting Himself, the eternal, immortal, glorious Word of God, to a shameful, ignominious and painful death on the Cross. For three days thereafter, the dark powers seemed to win. Christ’s upside down logic, His idea that He could conquer the dark powers that ruled the world (John 12:31, John 14:30) by submitting to them, seemed to have been nothing but the idiotic babblings of a madman.
And then, He rose. Against all odds, against conventional wisdom, He rose. And in rising, He proved once and for all that love is mightier than power, that submission is greater than will, that humility is more glorious than pride. It was the most radiant, world-shattering paradox the human race ever had or ever will know, and it is the absolute centre of Christian life and worship. The ancient Alexandrian hymn ‘O Monogenēs’ (which Copts sing on Good Friday) includes a version of the Trisagion which revels in the paradox of Christ’s death:
“Holy God, who became man for our sake, without change, remaining God.
Holy Mighty, who by weakness showed forth what is greater than power.
Holy Immortal, who was crucified for our sake, and endured death in His flesh, of His own will.”
But there had to be three days were the darkness seemed to win. There has to be a dark night before the sun can dawn. There has to be death, before there can be life.
So yes, Christian, there is a dark forest that must be crossed before you can reach the palace of the king. Yes, repentant drug/porn addict, there will be three days of agony where you tear at the walls of your flesh, begging for another hit before you can be free. Yes, proud, selfish fool, there will be three days of humiliation and ridicule before you can taste the freedom of humility. Every part of us that needs healing, first has to die. Only remember that what dies, is only dead for three days (figuratively speaking). There will come a day, by the grace of God, when all of us will explode from our tombs, glowing with the glory of Christ’s victory; the same power and might that created the universe and ordained the sea’s limits. But until then, in small ways, we can touch that power on earth. Every time we are humble instead of proud, when we give a kind word to someone we dislike, when we spend time with someone in need, when resist the temptation to be selfish, we are beginning to restore in our flesh the ancient, glorious image of God, which is Christ.
Of course, we can only do it in, through and with Christ. Not the theological Christ, or Christ the ‘religious figure’: we need the living Christ. The real, risen, living PERSON of Christ. He’s very much alive, and He’s been meaning to speak with you …
“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age. Amen.” ~ The Nicene Creed