“The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a potentia mortis (capacity of death). The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into hell, the kingdom of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hell, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. The reality of death is not repealed, but its powerlessness is revealed.” (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, p. 150)
“The logic of the primitive Paschal Vigil is that a new age dawned with the appearance, death and resurrection of Christ. In preparation for the annual commemoration of that cosmic event, the liturgy revisited the pre-incarnational age through a rereading of key Old Testament passages that prefigure events of Christ’s incarnation.” (Paul Magdalino, The Old Testament in Byzantium, p. 71)
Holy Saturday is a day on which we contemplate the whole plan of God for our salvation from the beginning of creation. The Old Testament is read as prophecy of the New with each narrative not only foreshadowing and prefiguring the events in Christ’s own life but also being a typology of our own spiritual sojourn in Christ and into His Kingdom. There are 15 Old Testament lessons read during the Vespers-Liturgy which was originally part of the Paschal celebration. The words, events and prophecies of the Old Testament find both their fulfillment and full meaning in Christ’s own life, death and resurrection.
“The Old Testament gave us an eschatological interpretation of the Exodus, showing it to us as a type of the Messianic age. The New Testament proclaims that this typology has been fulfilled in Christ, who achieved the New Exodus foretold by the Prophets, by freeing men from the power of the Devil. The Fathers of the Church, while they uphold these two interpretations, are chiefly concerned to show that the Exodus is the type of those major factors in the life of the Church day by day, that is, the Sacraments through which the power of God continues to achieve man’s redemption, typified by the Exodus, and accomplished by Jesus Christ. The Fathers first of all show that the passage of the Red Sea and the eating of the manna are the type of Baptism and the Eucharist received on the anniversary day of the departure from Egypt, and then go on to show how this interpretation widens to include all the events of the Exodus.
It is one of the most important themes of early typology that the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, and this will be more easily understood when it is remembered that Baptism was administered during the night of Holy Saturday, in the framework, that is, of the Jewish feast which recalled the departure from Egypt. The parallel between the historical event of the departure from Egypt and the mystical rejection of sin by the passing through the baptismal font forces itself upon us. The Liturgical connection between the water of Baptism and the water of the Red Sea is not just fortuitous: we can only insist once more on what was said of the Flood; the significance of the baptismal water lies not in it being a rite of purification, but a rite of initiation. In any rite of initiation there is always a certain ritual imitation of the historical event. Such was the case with Jewish baptism, which in the Christian era took the place of circumcision as the initiatory rite of proselytes to the Jewish faith. G. Foot-Moore writes: “this baptism was neither a real nor merely a symbolic purification: it was essentially a rite of initiation.” And the purpose of this initiation was to bring the proselyte through the same stages that the people of Israel had passed through at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Even Jewish baptism them was an imitation of the crossing of the Red Sea and the baptism of the desert (Ex. 14:30).
We have seen that the New Testament certainly sees in the departure from Egypt a type of Baptism. St. Paul tells the Jews that their fathers “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized in the cloud and the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2-11), and the Gospel of St. John shows us how the great events of the Exodus were types of the Christian sacraments.” (Jean Danielou, S.J., From Shadows to Reality, pp. 175-176).
As in every liturgical celebration in the Church – both sacraments and Feast days – we enter into Christ’s life and experience the world in Christ. We understand the Old Testament in Christ. We live our spiritual lives whether fasting or feasting in Christ. We are saved by His faith, for He is God’s faithful servant, chosen to give life to the world.
May the blessings of the Risen Christ be with you this Pascha.
“The true message of Easter is most eloquently expressed in the icon of the Descent of Christ into Hell, or Sheol, the abode of the departed. In Western traditions, the Resurrection of our Lord is depicted as a victorious rising from the tomb. In Orthodoxy, the Resurrection is proclaimed by the image of the glorified Christ descending into the abyss. ‘In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul as God….’ Without surrendering His divine nature, the eternal Son of God assumes all the conditions of human existence. In an act of total self-abnegation, in perfect obedience to the will of the Father, He accepts the ‘kenotic’, or self-emptying, movement that leads from the Virgin’s womb to the humiliating agony of the Cross.
Yet even on the cross His descent is not complete. The tormented cry, ‘My God, my God, why…?’ is not the final word, nor is the surrender of His spirit the final act of self-emptying. He must still descend into the far reaches of the Abyss, the realm of death, in order there to break the bonds of death. He, the Second Adam and perfect Man, must reach out to touch, renew, and raise into His glory the First Adam, humankind fallen from life, who dwells in the land of shadows.” (John Breck, God With Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith, p 176)
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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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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)
We come to the full circle of this eight day week. We experience the resurrection of Lazarus and the death of Christ on the Cross – knowing both to be signs of the Kingdom of God and the universal resurrection. We experience baptism in this week in which we ourselves put on Christ, overcoming death so that we can live with Christ.
St. Paul in his letter to the Romans says:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. 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.” (Romans 6:3-9)
On Holy Saturday we already begin to experience the victory of Christ. The Kingdom of heaven is breaking into this world, our world. In Genesis 1, it is on Saturday that God creates humans. It is on Holy Saturday that God recreates humanity, descending into Hades to free humankind from the ravages of death.
A week ago on Saturday, with Christ resurrecting Lazarus, we begin anticipating the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. With Christ’s death on the cross we experience the fulfillment of God’s plan to conquer evil by love. As we sing in the Church’s liturgy:
“Those who buried themselves with Christ by baptism into death
And risen with him, sing praises and cry out, saying:
‘Where is your victory, O Death? Hades where is your sting?
For the Lord is risen, the Life and Resurrection.”
And so on Holy Saturday we in anticipation of life in the world to come celebrate the resurrection of our Savior. Already we proclaim the resurrection Gospel lesson from Matthew 28.
“Only God can save. In order to save man, he voluntarily ‘lowered himself not only to mankind itself, but to the very depths of human fallenness, to the very last degree of disintegration – unto death itself.’ For death is inextricably tied with sin: it enslaves a person to sin and engulfs one in one’s own self-interest, forcing one to fight for one’s own survival, often sacrificing the lives of others. Not being involved in sin, the incarnate God took on death, a result of sin, breaking the vicious cycle of sin and death. ‘In a world in which the battle for survival at the price of others has become a law, he showed death for others as the highest revelation of love. When this highest manifestation of love was accomplished by God himself, a truly new life entered the world.’ (John Meyendorff)” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL, p 186)
“Searching for fallen Adam but not finding him on Earth, the incarnate God entered the depths of hell to redeem him. This image is reminiscent of the parable of the lost sheep and the drachma. As in many hymns of the octoechos, the universal character of Christ’s redemption—not for one category of people but for all of mankind and every human being – is stressed. They also speak of Christ’s resurrecting the dead, described as an ‘emptying’ of hell by the risen Lord…” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL, p 188)
Christ comes for the salvation of the world. He dies on the cross so that we might each and all might receive the forgiveness of our sins and inherit life in the world to come. We celebrate this salvation in Holy Week in and through baptism and the Eucharist.
“Any time is right for salvation by baptism: whether it is day, night, a particular hour, or an instant. But the best time is one that shares the spirit of new birth. What time could be more suitable than the day of Easter? For that is the day that commemorated the Resurrection—and it is baptism that facilitates our own resurrection. On the day of the Resurrection, therefore, let us receive the grace of resurrection.” (St. Basil the Great – d. 379AD, ON FASTING AND FEASTS, p 42)
“If we add to the above texts those that speak of Christ’s descent and victory as a complete ‘emptying’ of hell, it becomes clear that the authors of the liturgical books saw Christ’s descent as significant for all people without exception. Sometimes various categories of the dead are mentioned, such as ‘the pious’ or ‘righteous’, but nowhere do the hymns speak of selectivity – the existence of certain groups that were unaffected by Christ’s descent. Nowhere in the octoechos is it stated that Christ preached to the righteous but left sinners without his saving words or that he led the holy fathers out of hell but left all the rest. It is never indicated that someone was excluded from God’s providence for the salvation of the people, accomplished in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Had Christ shed mercy only on the Old Testament righteous who awaited his coming, what miracle is this? Had he freed from Hades only the righteous, leaving behind the sinners, why would the ‘assembly of Angels’ have been amazed? One of the Orthodox evening prayers, attributed to St. John Damascene, reads: ‘for to save a righteous man is no great thing, and to have mercy on the pure is nothing wonderful, for they are worthy of your mercy.’ Had Christ saved only those to whom salvation belonged by right, it would not have been so much an act of mercy as the fulfillment of duty or a restoration of justice. ‘Should you save me for my works, this would not be grace or gift, but rather a duty,’ reads one of the morning prayers.
This is precisely the reason that the liturgical texts return again and again to the theme of Christ’s descent into Hades, and why church hymnographers express their wonder and astonishment at this event. The descent into Hades does not fit in with our usual, human ideas of justice, retribution, fulfillment of duty, the rewarding of the righteous, and the punishment of the guilty. Something extraordinary happened that made the angels shudder and be seized with wonder: Christ descended into Hades, destroyed its ‘strongholds’ and ‘bars’, unlocked the gates of hell, and ‘opened up the path of resurrection to all people.’ He opened up the way to paradise for everyone without exception.” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 178-179)
In the Orthodox Church we have the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September in which we both reflect upon and celebrate the place of the Cross of Christ in the salvation of the world as well as in our own spiritual lives. Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia comments:
“What is it, we ask, that links Paradise in the past (Genesis 1-2) with Paradise in the future (Revelation 21-22)? There is but one answer: the Cross. Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration.” (In Communion: Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship – Fall 2006, pg. 6)
The cross spans the entire history of the cosmos, linking together the Paradise in which God had placed his human creatures with the Kingdom of God which will be established at the end of time. Between those two events exists the world of the Fall in which we live and move and have our being. The Cross is the instrument which brings about the healing of not only humanity but of all of creation which has groaned awaiting restoration. Through the Cross God and humans are reconciled in the most amazing and improbable act of love – the death of the Incarnate God Jesus Christ. God’s humility and love for His creation knows no bounds. As Clark Carlton writes:
“By taking our humanity upon Himself, God also assumed all of the consequences of our sinfulness. It was not enough that He merely appear as man or that He take upon Himself only the higher aspects of our nature, for as St. Gregory the Theologian (4th c.) said, ‘What is not assumed is not healed.’ To heal and redeem fallen humanity, Christ had to enter into the lowest depths of human existence and break the stranglehold of sin and death upon the human race. This is the significance of the Cross: the Son of God descended into the pit of hades in order to lead mankind up to the heights of heaven. St. Mark the Ascetic (5th c.) wrote, ‘All the penalties imposed by divine judgment upon man for the sin of the first transgression – death, toil, hunger, thirst, and the like – He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is.’ ” (The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity, pg. 44)
“The entire history of humanity, and therefore of salvation, is a long descent of God into Hell, into the desert, into the barrenness of the human heart. This descent into the abyss befits the magnitude of the love of God.” (Boris Bobrinskoy, THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER, p 57)
Salvation is God rescuing humanity from death and sin. Salvation is God liberating men and women from slavery to death in Hades or Hell. Each time God has reached down to earth to help humans, it is God descending to whatever point, however low, humans have fallen. St. Augustine (d. 430AD) writes:
“We firmly believe, brethren, that the Lord has died for our sins, the just for the unjust, the master for the slaves, the shepherd for the sheep and, still more astonishingly, the Creator for the creatures.
He has preserved what he was from eternity; what he was in time he has sacrificed.
God hidden in the guise of the visible man, giving life with his strength and dying in his weakness ‘was put to death for our sins and raised for our justification.’ [Rom 4:25]” (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 339)
God enters into His creation in Jesus Christ, the God incarnate. God subjects Himself to space and time and then even to death itself. All in order to save His human creatures from death and destruction and corruption. Two hundred years before St. Augustine wrote, St. Melito of Sardis (d. ca 180AD) in one of his own writings has Christ proclaim:
I awoke those who were buried,
vanquished death and triumphed over the enemy.
I descended into hell, where I bound the mighty one
and raised men up to heaven.”
(in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, pg. 75)
The basic understanding of God in Christianity is that God descends to earth, even to hell to save us. He descends into our hearts to transfigure us, and into our graves to resurrect us.
“Christianity proclaims that the immortal God died on the cross and then was raised from the dead, restoring thereby the gift of everlasting life to all men. So, with the event of Golgotha, ‘death destroyed by death’ becomes a focal point of Christian kerygma, so much so that Jaroslav Pelikan calls the New Testament ‘the gospel of death.’ In contrast to the faith of Judaism, which concentrated on the life of this world, the early church brings the victory over death to the forefront of its creed, shifting its principal aspirations beyond the confines of the visible world—into the everlasting kingdom ‘which is not of this world’ (Jn 18:36). For Christians, the very idea of salvation came to signify the attainment of life without death, which Christ promised to all who believe in him (Jn 6:47). Death was seen as ‘the ultimate enemy’ (eschatos echthros) of mankind (cf 1 Cor 15:26), so powerful that is made God himself come down from heaven to vanquish it.” (Nicholas Sakharov, I LOVE THEREFORE I AM, p 223)
We do not live for this world alone, but also for the life in the world to come. The evil of this world, its injustices and its suffering and sorrow, do not triumph over humans. Rather God triumphs over the world and over death itself.
Christ’s resurrection is the sign of this victory of God’s love. The resurrection of Christ is thus the key to understanding this world. Life in this world remains but a part of the cosmic picture of what God is doing for the salvation of us all. God who entered space and time in Jesus Christ is not limited by either space or time, or by beginning or end, or by death and hell.
Salvation is not merely an historical event, for salvation brings eternity into history and transforms history into an experience of the divine.
Next: Images of Salvation (XI)
“Let Eve today rejoice in Sheol,
for her daughter’s Son
has come down as the Medicine of Life
to revive His mother’s mother.”
(The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephrem the Syrian by Sebastian Brock, pg. 99)
What St. Ephrem expresses might be summarized in the phrase that in Christ’s descent into Sheol/Hades, He meets His ‘grandmother’ again, face to face. In Orthodox tradition at least it is the pre-Incarnate God who is present at each anthropomorphic experience of God recorded in the Old Testament. Thus the God walking in the Garden of Eden is the pre-Incarnate Christ. Thus Eve has seen the face of Christ before His descent into Sheol/Hades.
“A bright new flower has appeared this day out of the tomb.
Souls have blossomed and are adorned with divers hues, and have become green with life.
The florescence of divine light has bloomed in the spiritual spring.”
(Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, Kindle Loc. 231-32)