So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26)
Thus ends the book of Genesis. What started with such divine hope and great promise – the creation of the world, the very good existence of human beings in the Garden of Eden, ends far removed from the glory of the beginning – in a coffin in Egypt. The last chapter of the Torah contains similar content – the friend of God, Moses the God-seer, dies and is buried in a foreign land in an unmarked grave which no one on earth even knows where that grave is.
Death plays a significant role throughout the Scriptures. Death is the last enemy for God to destroy (1 Corinthians 15:26). And so on Holy Saturday, we come once again face to face with death. Christ Jesus, our Lord, God and Savior, lies silently in the tomb embraced by death. But as Egypt was not the final resting place of either Israel or Joseph, and death is not the final word on Moses life and legacy, so too death is not triumphant over Christ Jesus.
“Moreover, Death fell down to the feet of Christ, and Christ carried him away, and the Devil who had been a rebel became a captive. Christ made Amente to quake and the power of the Devil he turned backwards [Note: Amente is the place of the dead in Egyptian mythology]. Death heard the voice of the Lord as he cried unto all souls: ‘Come forth, O ye who are bound in fetters, O ye who sit in the darkness and shadow of death, on you hath the light risen. I preach unto you life, for I am Christ, the Son of God.’ Then he set free the souls of the saints, and he raised them up with Him.” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell , p 55)
The road to the Kingdom of God travels right through the place of the dead, through Hades itself. Christ accepts the cross in order to join the dead in Hades, not to remain there but to free all of those held captive by Death. So we will sing on Pascha night that we pass from death to life and from earth to heaven, led by Christ our God.
“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body … from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive Him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King. Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison … and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny.
As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: ‘Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?’ And then Death cried out, as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see the light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry … among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (Aphrahat in Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev pp 69-70)
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