If we look at some of the ancient so-called «pagan» religions we may get a shock to see that in them there are many parallels and similarities to our Christian beliefs. In ancient Canaanite myth, for example, Ba’al, the god of the storm and of fertility, died and then overcame death by rising to life in the spring. In ancient Egypt the tradition said that Osiris was slain and then brought back to life by His son Horus. And Horus himself, as another hypostasis of Osiris, went on to defeat Seth, the god of barrenness and destruction. The similarities of some of these ideas with the central doctrine of Christianity have frequently disturbed many people. Indeed, just a few years ago a «Christian» author discussed the Osiris tradition in some detail, calling him the «pagan Christ» with the full implication that this was the origin of the Resurrection. There are also countless myths of heroes going down to the underworld, the place of the dead, and returning from it, returning from the place «from which there is no return.» The almost countless traditions of this nature can furnish the opponent of Christianity with some powerful ammunition to discredit the Christian faith. «See! I have shown that Christianity is nothing but a survival of ...» and then add whatever the ancient tradition may be. I have often heard remarks like that, and my reaction usually causes some consternation to the one who made them. Instead of becoming confused, upset, or defensive, as is expected, I tend to reply calmly and peacefully, «That’s nice.» And those two little words in effect mean, «That was a nice try, but it just does not work.»
So, what are we to make of these similarities? Did Christianity in effect borrow the idea of a deity who died and rises again? It is, of course possible, but at the same time the idea itself was so widespread, that it seems far more likely that its occurrences in the different traditions were independent of one another. Far more probable is the theory that the human desire for life and the hope of defeating death were do deeply ingrained that the human personality gave expression to them in the symbolic myths of gods and heroes. (In one tradition, Herakles actually became a god and was received on Mount Olympus.) Somewhere, and probably somewhere far deeper than ordinary intellectual knowledge, somewhere in the basic instinct of the human personality, man realized that death could not be the end, but that resurrection and new life must be the ultimate reality. Thus, in so many cultures and traditions, resurrection and everlasting life became the hope that gave man strength, courage and the ability to face the harsh realities of life. But maybe this is just wishful thinking, a desire for something which can never be realized? Perhaps so, but if it is then we are truly the most wretched and deluded of all peoples in all times of history.
In contrast to this suggestion, however, let us consider the idea that, as stated by John of Damascus in his treatise on the Orthodox Faith, the knowledge of God is implanted in us by nature, and with this innate knowledge of God there comes also an innate knowledge of the destiny for which mankind was created. We are called into union with God, and not just union in the sense of transitory knowledge or experience, but eternal union in the sharing of the divine essence, in partaking of the being of God Himself. It is this very end which the ancient myths were seeking, even though those who formulated those myths were unable to articulate their hopes and aspirations more clearly and more specifically. Despite the dimness of the eye of faith and the failings of the human intellect, man has always had an unexplained consciousness that there is a reality beyond what we can see and understand, but that reality is infinitely greater than what sense and intellect can ever hope to perceive.
And the same must be said of every reality about God. No intellect can hope to grasp the depth of His being or to understand the fullness of His works. The Scriptures and sacred history recount the works of God, but only in those terms which the human mind can comprehend. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, as the story is narrated in Genesis, but that narration is only given so that we may have some means of expressing the truth and wonder of Creation. The «how» and the «why» of it must lie far beyond the grasp of the human intellect. Science can make suggestions about how everything came into being. Perhaps it was the so-called Big Bang, but in the end this too remains a myth. The mystery with all its wonder and awe is still there, and all we can do is stand in amazement, unable to express the marvelous things which God does in history, in the universe and in eternity. Consider too the famous tradition of the Exodus. More than three thousand years ago, God called his people Israel out of Egypt and created of them His special people, His kingdom of priests, His holy nation. But how did this happen? The actual historical events are very uncertain, but their meaning cannot be denied, for the Exodus was yet another step on man’s historical journey towards the Kingdom of eternity.
And the Resurrection of Jesus Christ! What can we say? How can we express it or hope to apprehend its magnitude? Like every work of God, it lies far beyond the limits of our mortal and temporal minds. We have the accounts recorded in the Gospels, but they do not all agree, and we can have no truly clear picture even of what exactly happened on that first Paschal day or how it happened. And if we cannot know even the simple events, how can we understand the magnitude and scope of our Lord’s eternal Resurrection. In the Resurrection, Creation and the final Kingdom of God in the realm of eternity become conjoined to produce the most significant phenomenon which has ever occurred through all of time and even before time began. We can hear and speak only a few of the concrete events of that first Pascha, but our understanding cannot penetrate into the totality of it. We can strive to experience, struggle to see the Risen Christ, not simply in His earthly, though resurrected, body, but in the reality of his eternal being and in the unchanging truth that he is the Alpha and the Omega. He was dead, but now He is alive for evermore, and He alone holds the keys to death and hell. When we shout «Christ is Risen!» we are referring not simply to a single act which we are remembering now and will soon probably forget. Rather we are referring to the eternal reality of the New Creation which is revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. The joyful shout — and joyful it must be! — can ring throughout the Church and across the land, and the bells may peal to announce our Lord’s victory. But that shout and the pealing of the bells can also resound beyond time and space, tearing apart the veil which separates us from the realm of the Holy Trinity and announcing our entry into the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom into which the resurrected Christ now brings us.
But, as sophisticated as all this may sound, how does it differ from the myths of the ancient gods and their accomplishments and victories? How is our tradition any more real than they were? What makes our faith more than just hope or wishful thinking? These questions are often asked, and for those who ask them, they are yet another proof that Christianity is just a survival of some ancient pagan tradition. But to that we have an answer: The Christ Himself! The eternal Word of the Father through whom all things are created! Christ, the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate and walked the earth as man — not just man, but God and Man, God perfectly incarnate in man and bringing the truths expressed in myth and symbol into the temporal reality of our world. The Christ is no mere myth and His actions and deeds as not the wonderful stories of a mythical hero. Thomas, the doubter, was told to touch and believe, and he could have done so, for the Christ stood before him in His resurrection body. Myth becomes reality, hopes and aspirations are realized as we see the revelation of the eternal Kingdom of God. The Resurrected Christ, the perfect union of man and God, is the destruction of death and the road which leads to eternity. He who follows Christ goes with Him along this road and makes his journey to that place where faith will be swallowed up in sight and in the eternal vision of the Holy Trinity.
With this as the basis of our triumph and joy, we are all invited to follow our Lord through His Pascha, to experience with Him His death and Resurrection, and to stand with Him, redeemed and sanctified, in the very presence of God. Can anyone ask for more?
Glory be to Jesus Christ forever and ever! Amen!
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