In our liturgy there are certain little dialogs between the pastor and the congregation that, over time, become automatic. For example, if the pastor says “The Lord be with you,” the congregation will respond with, “And also with you,” even if they don’t have their bulletin or hymnal ahead of them. In the prayers, when the pastor says, “Lord, in your mercy,” the congregation will respond, “Hear our prayer.” And so on.
There is another little dialog that is used especially on Easter Sunday. Many congregations begin their Easter Service with the pastor saying, “Christ is Risen!” and everyone responds with, “He is Risen, Indeed!”
This originated in the Eastern Orthodox Church where it is known as “The Paschal Greeting.” Every time I hear this Paschal Greeting I am reminded of a story that took place years ago in the communist Soviet Union. There were several decades where Christians were severely persecuted, and the practice of any kind of ‘unauthorized religious activity’ could result in arrest, imprisonment, and even exile in one of the infamous Gulags, or prison camps, in remote Siberia. This story takes place in one of those prison camps.
Prison life was very difficult and people become demoralized. Their bodies suffered and their spirits were broken. The idea was to break the spirit and the will so they would willingly conform to the Communist state and its atheistic policies.
Each day, all of the inmates at this camp were herded into the courtyard to listen to two or three hours of loud and obnoxious propaganda of the glories of communism, the power of the Soviet Union, and the foolishness of any kind of religion.
One day an old man went to the camp commander with a request. “Sir,” he said, “I am a priest and today is Easter. May I be permitted to have a worship service for my people?”
“Of course not,” said the commander. “That is just the kind of thing we are trying to do away with here. Besides, no one believes all of that nonsense anymore.”
“Well, all right then,” said the old priest, “But would you grant me permission to say just three words into the loudspeaker when we gather today in the courtyard? As you say, no one believes in my religion anyway, so what influence could I hope to have with just three words?”
The commander grunted and granted the request, saying, “Three words and no more.”
That afternoon was Easter day to the rest of the world, but it was a day like any other in that camp. All were gathered to again endure the three hours of propaganda. When it was over, the prisoners were surprised to see the old priest being led to the microphone. All were silent as the priest paused before he spoke. Then he raised his arms and loudly proclaimed the three words he was allowed. He said, “Christ is Risen!”
Automatically and with great enthusiasm, the entire prison population responded, shouting, “He is Risen, Indeed!”
For those powerless and demoralized prisoners, this was a great victory. They were, in those few words, able to show their persecutors that they were not broken, their spirits were still strong, and they did not believe the lies that were forced to listen to every day. Their hope was still in God, and not in the godless Soviet regime which would never gain their trust and hope. Their hope was in the risen Jesus, who had told his captor, Pontius Pilate, that his kingdom was not of this world.
Because Christ is risen, our hope is not in the kingdoms of this world, but our hope is in God’s heavenly kingdom. We pray for that every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Thy Kingdom Come.”
We are not prisoners in Siberia, but we are prisoners of time. We are not fenced in by barbed wire and high walls with no place to go, but we are fenced in by our mortality. We have no hope of escaping beyond the confines of our ‘three score and ten years’ (give or take a little), unless we hope in Jesus.
Jesus offers us an eternal hope. Just as he has risen from the dead, he has promised that by faith in him, we too can rise from the dead and escape the prison of our mortality.
Matthew 28:1-6a — After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; HE HAS RISEN…”
Luke 24:34b — “THE LORD IS RISEN INDEED.”
I Peter 1:3-4 — Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.
Christ is Risen: The world below lies desolate
Christ is Risen: The spirits of evil are fallen
Christ is Risen: The angels of God are rejoicing
Christ is Risen: The tombs of the dead are empty
Christ is Risen indeed from the dead, the first of the sleepers,
Glory and power are his forever and ever. Amen.
–St. Hippolytus of Rome (AD 190-236)