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From death to life: Praising the Resurrection with St. Gregory Narek

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The Easter season also has a clear goal. After the 50 days of celebrating in the freedom of Christ's new life, we should be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Lent has a clear focus -- doing penance to prepare for the Resurrection -- although it can be harder to focus on spiritual growth during the Easter season. It is a time of fruitfulness, although the experience of the joy and freedom of the season is conditional. If we have died to ourselves in Lent, then we can experience the new life of the Resurrection: "The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him" (2 Tim 2:11-12). The Easter season also has a clear goal. After the 50 days of celebrating in the freedom of Christ's new life, we should be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Easter is a time of renewal, drawing us into Christ's resurrected life to live the fruits of prayer and virtue that arise from the pruning of our sinful habits during Lent.

This vision of dying with Christ to live anew in his Spirit is proclaimed by Paul in his Letter to the Romans. In chapter 6, he relates, "But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (vv 8-11). And then in chapter 8: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh -- for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live" (vv 11-12). Easter does not bring us to the end, but rather to a new beginning.

We can see this theme echoed in the Church's liturgical and spiritual tradition. For instance, we see the healthy tension of repentance and rejoicing in one of the newest doctors of the Church, St. Gregory of Narek, a 10th-century Armenian monk known for his mystical poetry and particularly his masterpiece, "From the Depths of the Heart" (also known as the Book of Lamentations). This beautiful and moving work is now more accessible thanks to a new annotated translation by Abraham Terina (Liturgical Press, 2021). Within it, Gregory offers lamentation for sin, not simply his own but for the Church and the world. Resurrection is not a major focus of the work, although you can see it breaking through as the fruit of turning from sin toward an embrace God's mercy.

Narek offers this plea in the opening section of the book: "But you, God, God of souls and all flesh, as professed by one divinely graced, you are forbearing and abounding in mercy. . . . Grant that I complete to your delight, by your holy will, this prayer book of lamentation now begun. And having sown these words tearfully and set forth on this path toward the dwellings you have prepared, may I arrive joyfully in the time of harvest with the return of the bounty of atonement, with the blessed fruit of goodly sheaves" (10). The theme of resurrection comes out explicitly later in the work, as Gregory prays, echoing St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, "'that I might know him and the power as his resurrection,' as the apostle says, 'and that I may share in his suffering.' . . . For true faith is closely linked to the transformation in this renewal: from sin to atonement, from wrongdoing to righteousness, from impurity to holiness, from . . . Mortal sins to impeccable blessedness, and from bondage of serfdom to the freedom of heaven" (48). Easter is a time to experience this transformation as the fruit of prayer and sacrifice.

In Easter, we should not slacken our spiritual exercises, even if they take on a more joyful, rather than penitential, character. Praying with St. Gregory of Narek, who is a doctor of penitential prayer, would be a great way to continue the spiritual movement from death to life in Easter, which he so beautifully expresses: "Blessed, blessed, and blessed again! / Having accepted me by the same faith, / raise me up from my fallen state, O Benefactor; / cure me of the maladies of disease, O Merciful; / bring me back to life from the edge of death, O Life, / for I am yours, so make me live, O Refuge. / Grant me, a dead person, the breath of life, O Resurrection" (190).

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