By Fr. Konstantinos Sarantidis
(Originally given as Pascha message in 2006 at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Portland, Maine)
One of the most hallowed and beloved traditions of the Orthodox people is the offering of kolyva at memorials. It’s a good tradition, with the wheat symbolizing so many things it’s hard to decide where to begin explaining it. The wheat reminds us of communion. It also reminds us that Jesus is the “bread of life” and the “bread that came down from heaven.” Last but foremost, the wheat in kolyva reminds us of Jesus’ words, in John 12.24, that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” So when we present kolyva in memory of someone who has died, we are using the wheat as a symbol of the resurrection, of new life and eternal life. But look at Jesus’ words more closely and you see that the wheat also reminds us of the community gathered around the deceased. Only when a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies does it produce many seeds and a multiplication of life. This is the miracle of seeds and also the miracle of Christian living. Every one of us is part of a giant chain of being that grows outward and inward. Every one of us is touched by the life of a fellow traveler on the way. We are not alone, and the person whom we are remembering is also not alone. Death is not an entry into eternal darkness and solitude, but an entry into enhanced spiritual fellowship and joy. The wheat in kolyva is not a mere superstition, but a glorious visual image of the Christian gospel and the community which exists around the name of Christ. What a magnificent tradition! The symbol itself is full of life and promise. This is the way with all true symbols.
Christianity is of the earth and Jesus constantly used images from agriculture and the land to illustrate his most important teachings. Increasingly, though, the imagery used by Jesus becomes strange and unfamiliar to modern people. Over the last century, people in America and Europe have become separated from the land. We’ve become consumers rather than producers. We manipulate rather than cultivate the earth. It is no wonder that modern Christianity so often becomes un-nurturing and artificial in so much of our society. Granted, we’ve moved beyond an agricultural society and certainly people are not going to move back to the farm in order to better experience the words of Jesus. Only a fool would suggest that we move the clock back to a time when most people lived in rural settings. We can’t go back. But we can and should slow down the increasing mechanization of our lives and the loss of our connection to the land. We can move away from the land and live in cities; but certainly, somehow we must preserve some authenticity and not give in completely to the artificial. If the symbols of life disappear, the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection itself will become incomprehensible.
I’m moved to write these words because of something I read recently in the April issue of a British magazine that I regularly read, The Ecologist. There is now a seed sterilization technology that was developed by the Monsanto company, with the help of the US government. This technology, dubbed “Terminator” by many who are fighting to stop it, is a means to genetically modify plants so that they produce sterile seeds. Can you imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing? Well, yes you can. If this technology spreads and is commercialized, it will prevent farmers from re-using seeds from their harvest, forcing them to buy seeds for each planting! It’s about money and profit, after all, and it is no wonder that already three patents have been taken out jointly by a multinational seed company, Delta & Pine Land, and the US Department of Agriculture!
So not only has modern life become separated from the land, but soon even the very symbol of death and resurrection will be eliminated by the mad and unstoppable drive for greater profit. If this doesn’t shock you, then perhaps nothing will until the ice caps all melt and coastal Maine is under water! Our lack of respect for the environment and God’s natural laws is devastating. While some people attack the secularization of society as the greatest enemy of Christianity, I contrariwise believe that it’s our violation of nature’s workings that further and further reduces Christianity to a stereotypical organized religion without life at its core but rather merely a formality. It’s no wonder that most programs for church growth today seem like theological equivalents of artificial insemination. Organic growth? Jesus better come up with some new metaphors!
Am I going off the deep end here and connecting unrelated phenomena? I don’t think so. Symbols are the heart of faith. A Christianity without symbols will become merely an ideology. And ideologies lead to death and stagnation rather than life and resurrection. When the original symbols lose their meaning, we will have to invent new ones. But will the new ones be better, more meaningful? Most likely not. Let’s face it, would you rather have wheat as a symbol of resurrection, or the Easter bunny? For a few more decades, perhaps, the metaphor of wheat will continue to hold some meaning, but if things like the “Terminator” spread, there will be no room for such symbols. And then the resurrection will have no connection with real life and will be little more than an idea, or, worse, an ideology. Some might say, we live in an era of ideological warfare anyway, so what’s the big deal? But ideology leads to death, war and stagnation, rather than life, peace and nurturing growth. It would be nice if one of these days the “pro-life” people began to also care about the life of the planet, but then it wouldn’t fit their ideology of death.
But we Orthodox have at the core of our tradition a rich symbolism of life and we must uphold it with all our strength lest we lose our connection with Jesus. We have a tradition of iconography that reminds us of the landscape of holiness that characterized the Christian message for centuries, before it began to be distorted. We have a tradition of liturgical worship that involves matter as well as spirit in a marriage of nurture and praise. We have a tradition of living symbols — like kolyva and holy water — that reconnect us with the earth from which all life comes and to which all life returns. It’s a tempting desire to be “raptured” away from the earth, especially when we’ve turned the earth into a garbage dump, but I prefer to think that we complete our lives here on earth and return like seeds to the earth from which new life will sprout forth to create ever-increasing praise to God. There is a resurrection coming, but it’s a resurrection that will be shared by the earth and the entire cosmos. As Orthodox we must fight for the preservation of symbols and the traditions which connect us with the life of the earth, the same earth from which Jesus drew so much of his inspiration. Often in past sermons, bible studies and writings I have drawn attention to the meaning of symbols in the Bible and in our worship and traditions. But I probably need to raise the bar and work even more diligently in this area before we lose it all.
Let’s start with Holy Week and Pascha. Let the children experience the rolling away of the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, as the Sunday School will try to do this year on Lazarus Saturday. Let’s gather together that same day after Liturgy and prepare the Palm crosses and let’s accept those palm crosses, not as mere lapel decorations or something else to pile inside the back window of the car, but as reminders of a festive greeting that welcomed Jesus into the city of man. Let us be anointed with oil and be touched, not merely reminded, with healing and forgiveness. Let’s carry the Cross of Christ with reverence and light a candle in front of it, offering ourselves as living sacrifices to the one who died for us and for the life of the world. Let’s pass under the Epitaphios, rejoicing in the renewal of our baptism and re-committing our lives to Christ. Let’s take a flower home from the Epitaphios, as a sweet reminder of the beauty of Christ’s resurrection and the promise it holds for all. And then on Pascha night, let’s turn off the artificial lights and experience the light of Christ rising in the darkness to announce the dawn of a new day. Let’s open our mouths and receive a tangible taste of eternal life, through bread and wine. Wheat and grapes continue to provide the livelihood of Christians who pray for their daily bread. And yes, there will still be room for Easter bunnies and chocolate the next morning and it will be okay — because we will have retained our roots in the more genuine symbols of Resurrection.
This is the message I want to share with you at this Easter time. The resurrection of Jesus is not an idea, not an ideology. It is a reality that can be experienced every time we participate in the blessed sacraments and traditions of the church. But it is also a reality that can be experienced every time we turn with genuine attention and respect to the world and try everything in our power to preserve some connection with the way God created it. Life comes from life, not from words in a book — which is why the Orthodox Church has always aimed at making the words of the Bible come to life in living traditions and symbols. Our churches are full of these symbols, and the greatest symbol of all is the Resurrection of Christ. Let’s inspire our young people to learn the importance of making prosfora for the Liturgy and honoring our dead with trays of wheat. Let us reject the “Terminator” technology that threatens to destroy our last connections to the earth and its life-giving symbolism. Let’s elect men and women to government who will steer us away from the genetic modification of food and the sterilization of seeds, and who will legislate for the protection of the environment and all life instead.
Am I mixing a political and environmental message with the message of Easter? Of course I am, but then so did Jesus and so has the church done for two thousand years. The Resurrection itself is a political statement about the eternal value of creation. Let’s honor what is best in our history. There is no better time to start than now. It might be too late this year, but in future years I will hope that we find natural ways to dye our Easter eggs rather than the artificial coloring agents we now use. Small steps, friends, small steps — but it all adds up. Let’s proclaim the Pascha of the Lord as a time for renewed commitment to what is best about life. Jesus died and rose again so as to fill this world with his presence. Do you see him?
Open your heart to the glorious mystery of the Lord’s passing from death to life, and as you experience that mystery in the worship of Holy Week, may you begin to see the wonderful seed of resurrected life that lies within you. Don’t terminate that seed. Water it, nurture it, and watch it grow to eternity! God bless you at Easter. Christ is Risen! May risen life be yours.
Note: Guest blog posts do not necessarily represent the views of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, but are offered as thoughtful reflections on Orthodoxy and Creation by Orthodox Christians with diverse backgrounds and views.