Today we celebrate the Holy Pascha, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. It is the basis of every Feast and sacrament in the Orthodox Church. St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) writes:
“The sacred feast and holiday that we are keeping is the first to commemorate our recall and re-creation according to grace, for on it all things began to be made new, enduring precepts began to be brought in instead of temporary ones, the spirit instead of the letter, the truth instead of shadows.
Today, a new world and a mysterious paradise have been revealed, in which and from which a new Adam came into being, re-making the old Adam and renewing the universe. He is not led astray by the deceiver, but deceives him, and bestows freedom on those enslaved to sin through his treachery.”
To this point in the quote, we understand St. Gregory perfectly, but then he makes a surprising, even puzzling the comment:
“Today a paradoxical book has been made ready on earth, which in an indescribable way can hold, not the imprint of words, but the living Word Himself; not a word consisting of air, but the heavenly Word; not a word that perishes as soon as it is formed, but the Word who snatches those who draw near Him from perdition; not a word made by the movement of a man’s tongue, but the Word begotten of God the Father before all ages.”
What book is St. Gregory talking about? It is a wonderful image – a book that holds the Word of God. But what does this have to do with Pascha?
“Today the living tabernacle of God not made with hands appears, the inspired human ark of the true bread of life sent down from heaven for us (cf John 6:32ff) . . . Thus Christ took sin’s prisoners to live with Him for ever, justifying them by faith in Him, but He bound the prince of sin with inescapable bonds, and delivered him to eternal fire without light. Today, as prophesied, out of the ‘stem of Jesse’ a rod has come forth (cf Isa 11:1), from which a flower has grown which knows no wilting. This rod recalls our human nature, which had withered and fallen away from the unfading garden of delight, makes it bloom again, grants it to flourish for ever, brings it up to heaven, and leads it into paradise.” (THE HOMILIES, p 334)
St. Gregory’s quote begins with words which apply to Pascha so well and give us a wondrous glimpse into the Feast of the Resurrection. The surprise is that actually he is talking about the Nativity of the Mother of God – she is the book upon whom the Word will be written. The words are about a completely different Feast and yet so beautifully show how all of our Feasts are centered in Christ and in His resurrection. All of our Feasts celebrate the new Adam, the new creation and the reopening of Paradise to humankind.
On this day we commemorate Christ’s descent into Hades where He confronts the personified Death and Satan, humanity’s enemies. However, in the Orthodox Church, we do not celebrate only an “objective” event of Christ’s descent into Hades and His resurrection from the dead. Pascha is also something we experience in our own lives. St. Macarius of Egypt however also personalizes this descent, for St. Macarius says Christ descends into our hearts, and into the death and hell in each of us to liberate us from that as well.
“When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that he descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul. . . . So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force.’ And he shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison. . . . Is it difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart and to call out dead Adam from there? . . . If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled, and also souls, and, having released Adam from there, [remains] unfettered by death. Similarly, rain coming down from the sky reaches the nethermost parts of the earth, moistens and renews the roots there and gives birth to new shoots.” (Macarius of Egypt in Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s CHRIST THE CONQUERER OF HELL, pp 73-74)