Overcoming Emptiness - Holy Week and Pascha

Holy Week.

Everything over the last several weeks – the services, the commemorations, the prayers, the fasting – has been leading to the events of this week. All of it has been designed to open our hearts to fully experience these high holy days and the Resurrection in which they culminate. 

Though these events are distinct, they nonetheless work together in perfect unity with one another. In truth, we celebrate the events of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection together! 

We cannot isolate the Cross from the Resurrection any more than we can isolate the Resurrection from the Cross.  Doing so would make the Resurrection empty and the Cross meaningless.  

All of the events of Holy Week are undertaken as Christ’s one, seamless Passion, in which He works to free fallen humanity from sin, death, and the devil. As we will sing at midnight on Saturday: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs He is bestowing life.” 

Even on Pascha, the feast of His Most Holy and Glorious Resurrection, we are remembering His death – trampling down death by death. It is in the Cross, in His Death, that Christ’s victory occurs; but it is only in the light of the Resurrection that the darkness of the Cross is seen for what it is. Without the Resurrection, Christ stays in the grave and is just one more nameless victim of the Roman Empire. And so this whole week should be undertaken as one, wholly united and saving act of God. 

It’s important to remember that, before Christ, the Cross was a symbol of death and despair.  Untold thousands died painfully on crosses across the Roman Empire, often for no other reason than because the authorities sought to exert their power and deepen their control.

These were meaningless deaths.  

Yet Christ did not run from the Cross.  Though He was innocent of any and all wrongdoing, He accepted the most brutal and final of punishments.  He accepted a meaningless death.  

Yet, in doing so, He revealed the true meaning of the Cross, as He showed it to be the key to the Resurrection.  He bravely stared into the void, and filled it with hope and life.  
Without the Cross, there is no Resurrection.  And without the Resurrection, the Cross is the meaningless death of a poor carpenter’s poor son.

The Resurrection gives meaning to the Cross, illuminating it as the “Life-Giving Cross” of the Lord. As St. Athanasius puts it, the Resurrection reveals to us that the Cross is “the glorious monument to death’s defeat.”1  But it bears repeating (again and again) that it is only in Christ’s voluntary Passion and His Glorious Resurrection from the dead that we understand death to have been destroyed by His death.

After all, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Indeed, isn’t this the case in our own lives?

Like everyone, I’ve felt stuck in situations that, at the time, seemed dark, hopeless, even meaningless.  To the extent possible, it is only by looking backwards through my life that I can understand the different steps and turns that I needed to take (to be taken on?) in order to arrive where I am today.

And isn’t that the case with all of us?

Haven’t there been times in each of our lives when we have thought, “There is absolutely no way this is going to work out. I may as well give up.” And haven’t we all been proved wrong at some point, even if it took an uncomfortably long time? And standing on the other side of it, don’t we all have that blessed moment of understanding: “OHHHHHHHHHHHH!” 

Each of us walks through life being pummeled by life’s many mini-deaths, crosses – job loss, divorce, a child’s death, mental illness, addiction ¬– and often, in the midst of it, it simply feels meaningless. 

And we’re not alone in that despair.  Even the Scripture records the despair of great figures like King David who, in the midst of his troubles, cried out to God with doubt, imploring, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13).

Even Christ cried out, as He hung from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mat 27:46).  Imagine it. God Himself, hanging from the Cross, experiences feelings of abandonment by God. In this way, God is present even in the experience of  being godforsaken. There are no words to do this justice!

By entering our suffering, God imbues it with meaning, not because He sends the suffering, but because He shares it.  Because He loves us. 

Sometimes we believe that we receive trials and troubles as punishment for…something (not praying enough? not fasting? not giving that homeless gentleman a dollar?). We turn God’s action in our lives into some kind of cosmic yet strangely personal tit-for-tat (at best) or infantile yet powerfully punitive judgment (at worst). As if good things happening in our life were evidence that we are on the right path while the so-called bad things are evidence that we are on the wrong path.

But if that were the case, how does this account for Christ, the Innocent One, who bravely and voluntarily went to His own death?  Was His suffering a punishment?

No. God is the source of life and joy, not death and despair.  Yet the world, which is still in the process of being saved, is still imperfect.  And our walk through life will, unfortunately, be interrupted by crosses.  

Each of us experiences these crosses as being too heavy, too overwhelming, and perhaps that is precisely the point. Even Christ fell carrying His Cross; crosses are HEAVY. And frequently, we may find ourselves falling under the weight of them, asking ourselves and God, “What’s the point?”

Honestly, there may not always be the point.  Life just sucks sometimes.  

But perhaps that is just the point. Maybe the choices we make, and the way we respond to apparently meaningless suffering, will allow us to make sense of that pain when it’s all done.

Maybe we’ll be able to make sense of pain when we’re delivered from it, when we look backward from the Kingdom of God.

Maybe our paths through life will only make sense when we stand resurrected by the Resurrected One and look back at all that our lives have been. Maybe only then, after we stand unbroken and transformed, will our crosses – job loss, divorce, etc. – become monuments to the defeat of death in our own lives. 

God understands that our crosses hurt us. He understands that we are prone to despair and confusion and feelings of utter meaningless. And He does not want us to endure it alone. Instead of allowing these things to simply be meaningless, Christ took up the Cross and transformed darkness into light. He took the meaningless, and gave it meaning inasmuch as pain, suffering – indeed, the Cross – has become the location of His very life-giving presence. 

It is in His death that He fully unites Himself with humanity, drinking to the dregs all that it is to be a human in this broken, fallen, and dying world.

And perhaps this is the message of Holy Week for us. Our paths may be dark. Our crosses may be heavy. But they only last for a little while, and in the end, the light of Christ’s Resurrection reveals to us that they are the very means by which we can share in Christ’s victory over death in our own lives. Indeed, we must not view our own crosses apart from Christ’s victory in the Cross, illumined by His Resurrection.

Christ’s Passion and Resurrection show us that, even when our own suffering seems arbitrary and meaningless, this emptiness can be overcome. That no darkness is too dark to be overcome by Christ’s light, as we join Him on the path to Golgotha. 

And what’s more, Christ’s Passion and Resurrection demonstrate to us that we do not walk this path alone. As Andrew Root writes, “God does not meet us in the natural order, in power, or in individual holiness, but in lowliness, weakness, and suffering; for God desires to be with us and for us. Out of great love, God chooses to be found in places of despair and suffering; God chooses to be found on the cross.”2 

But God also shows us in His Resurrection from the dead that these places of despair and suffering are about to be broken through, that an all-new reality is bursting forth from the grave, for even now, “upon those in the tombs He is bestowing life.” Presently. And always.

So let’s take up our crosses, walk the path of following Christ, who is Risen from the dead, trusting that as we walk with Him in the likeness of His death, so, too, will we live with Him forever in the likeness of His Resurrection.

-Christian Gonzalez

1 St. Athanasius, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V., On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1993), p. 54.

2 Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair (Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2011), p.84.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.


For more:

For more on our salvation in Christ, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on the Resurrection, check out this episode of Be the Bee: