Holy Saturday (2018)

On Holy Saturday we commemorate Christ’s descent from this world into the world of the dead – into Hades itself.  It is from within Hades that Christ destroys its power and the strangulation hold which Death held on humanity   Death is overthrown!  This is the Gospel proclamation.  As Matthew Baker writes frequently quoting the theology of Fr. Georges Florovsky :

The death of Christ is of necessity for salvation precisely because through it, eternal life enters the realm of death.    Thus, Holy Saturday itself is “the very day of our salvation.” As the icons suggest, Christ enters Hades as Victor, despoiling death. . . .  “The power of the Resurrection is precisely ‘the Power of the Cross,’” of which resurrection is “not only a consequence, but a fruit.” . . .  

Holy Saturday commemorates “the mystery of the resurrecting Cross,” the descent by which, Florovsky says – citing the synaxarion notice from Matins on Holy Saturday – “called from corruption, our race passed to life eternal.” “The tree of the Cross is an ‘ever-glorious tree,’ the very Tree of Life…’by which the lamentation of death is abolished’.” ( On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 115-116)

The church fathers wanted it to be clear that the descent of Christ into Hades cannot be understood in a historical sense as having happened once in the past.  Christ’s descent into Hades has an eternal dimension and is always true, thus we too experience the resurrection fully in our own life. When we try to understand Christ purely historically, that literally fetters our minds so we lose the cosmic dimension of salvation.  And the “hell” that Christ descends into is not simply a place but is a state of existence which any of us can find ourselves. To understand the Divine Christ we have to be able to think beyond literal categories and to see the universe as God sees it.

When you hear that Christ descended into hell in order to deliver the souls dwelling there, do not think that what happens now is very different. The heart is a tomb and there our thoughts and our intellect are buried, imprisoned in heavy darkness. And so Christ comes to the souls in hell that call upon Him, descending, that is to say, into the depths of the heart; and there He commands death to release the imprisoned souls that call upon Him, for He has power to deliver us. Then, lifting up the heavy stone that oppresses the soul, and opening the tomb, He resurrects us – for we were truly dead – and releases our imprisoned soul from its lightless prison.   (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34138-44)


Christ Frees ALL From Hell

“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) 


Images of Salvation (VII)

“Meditation on hell enables us to understand from what Christ came to save us, provided we cling with all our strength to his salvation.”  (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 138)

This is the seventh blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (VI).

In Orthodox theology as expressed in our celebration of the Feast of the Resurrection, God became incarnate in Christ in order to liberate us from hell and deliver us from death, not to send sinners to hell to suffer.

“Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”  (Ezekiel 33:11)

“For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  (John 3:17)

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.”  (St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon)

The man who wrote under the pseudonym of St. Dionysius the Areopagite offers us the following story to help us understand Christ’s attitude toward death and hell, and what we as His disciples should think about hell and Christ’s saving us from it:

 “One day I was in Crete.  The holy man Carpus welcomed me to his home. … he told me that one day he was exasperated by the infidelity of a man … (which)… had turned away from faith in God one of the members of his church… Carpus in his goodness should have been duty bound to pray for both of them. … Instead, Carpus for the first time in his life felt grieved and indignant.  It was in this state of mind that he went to bed and fell asleep.  In the middle of the night, at the hour when he was in the habit of waking of his own accord to sing the praises of God, he arose, still prey to unspiritual irritation, saying to himself that is was not right to let someone live . . . and he begged God to hurl his inexorable thunderbolt to put an end at a single stroke to the life of two unbelievers.  At that moment, he said, the house where he was suddenly seemed to rock this way and that, then to split in two from the roof down the middle.  A vivid flame appeared which came down on him; the sky was rent; Jesus revealed himself in the midst of a multitude of angels…    

Carpus lifted his eyes and stood astonished at what he saw.  Looking down, he told me, he watched the ground itself opening to make a black yawning abyss, and in front of him on the edge of the abyss the two men he had cursed, trembling and gradually losing their foothold.  From the bottom of the abyss he saw snakes crawling up and wrapping themselves round the men’s feet trying their utmost to drag them down.  The men seemed to be on the point of succumbing, partly despite themselves, partly quite willingly, since there were being assaulted and at the same time seduced by the Evil One.  Carpus was overjoyed, he told me, as he contemplated the spectacle beneath him.  Forgetting the vision above (Jesus), he was growing impatient and indignant that the unbelievers had not yet succumbed.  Several times he joined his efforts to those of the snakes…  

In the end he lifted his eyes and saw again in the sky the same vision as shortly before.  But this time Jesus, moving with compassion, came down to the unbelievers and stretched out a hand to help them… then he said to Carpus, ‘Your hand is already raised.  It is I whom you should strike, for here I am to suffer again for the salvation of humanity…moreover you should consider whether you yourself should not stay in the abyss with the snakes, rather than live with God… ”

Olivier Clement comments:

“Carpus’s vision convinces him that to wish to damn anyone is to attack Christ himself, to annul his Passion and so to compel him to undergo it again; similarly it is to throw oneself, by one’s own actions, in the abyss.”      (The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement, pp 300-301)

Next:  Images of Salvation (VIII)

Christ’s Descent Reconstitutes Hades

“From Adam until the time of Christ, Hades was the place where the devil kept all who had died, and there was no way out. With Christ’s victory and the despoiling of Hades, this function – is no longer operative. Hades now becomes simply and solely and solely the place of final punishment. Therefore, Hades is not simply abolished by Christ’s descent, but rather reconstituted; it ceases to be the place of Satan’s dominion over all the dead and becomes instead the place under Christ’s lordship where those who refuse to believe in him reach their final destiny. Curiously, Cyril continues to call this place, ‘Hades’, making no distinction in the name, even though the function of the place has changed. In a sense, ‘Hades’ has changed ownership (and purpose) by virtue of Christ’s glorious victory over death.” (Daniel Keating, “Christ’s Despoiling of Hades: According to Cyril of Alexandria,” St. Vladmir’s Theological Quarterly, pg. 260)

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. 

(Psalm 139:7-10)

The Crucifixion of Hell

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is praised in Orthodox hymns as the death of death and the destruction of the Hell/Hades, the place which held Death’s captives.  The Orthodox hymns of the Paschal season often anthropomorphize Death, Hell and Sin, treating them as personal enemies of God which are defeated by Christ through His death and resurrection.   Consider two hymns from Matins Canticle 7, Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women:

Take courage, earthborn, for hell is dead!
Christ has hung it upon the Cross!
He has cast down the armor of hell,
He has captured it and stripped it bare.                                       Hell lies lifeless and dead.

The hymn above has Christ performing a miraculous switch with Hell – for in a complete “substitutionary” death, Christ in His own crucifixion actually nails Hell to the cross and crucifies it!  Hell was envisioned with armor – protected from any attack since no one was known to escape its grip.  Christ captures Hell which held Death’s captives, and then slays Hell.  Thus the place of the dead is defeated.   [St. Ephrem the Syrian in his poetry calls Christ the “hunter” of Satan.  (see EPHREM THE SYRIAN SELECT POEMS, p 51).   Satan in his turn recognizes that Christ is hunting him down and so hunts the Hunter (the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod after Christ’s birth is Satan’s first stab at slaying his pursuer).  Of course, little does Satan understand that in achieving his murderous goal – the death of Christ – he is assuring his own destruction.  Death is Satan’s tool and friend, Christ is going to use Death’s insatiable appetite to destroy Death and simultaneously to defeat Satan.]

The Lord is risen, capturing the enemy.
He has freed the prisoners.
Leading the first formed Adam out, together with all mankind,
He restores him as the merciful God and Lover of mankind!

Hell, personified is God’s enemy.  Christ, God’s chosen and suffering servant, through His death on the cross goes to Hell but is not captured and captivated by it.  Instead Christ takes the Jailor Death prisoner and frees all of Hell’s captives.   As in many Orthodox hymns and Patristic writers, Christ’s descent into Hell is a triumphal victory over it, and all th0se who have died including the original sinner Adam are liberated from death’s prison.   The salvation of Christ is not limited to the righteous who had died, but is universal and extends to all who died becoming prisoners of Death.

[Interestingly, many Western Patristic writers believed Christ saved from Hades only the righteous saints of the Old Testament, but not all the dead. They seem to hold to some version of a “predestined” idea that justice demands that sinners remain in Hades.   On the other hand, the 2nd Century heresiarch Marcion held a particular interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20 in which only the sinners of the Old Testament were saved by Christ’s descent into Hades – the Old Testament saints continued to rely on their own keeping the law/works righteousness and thus rejected Christ’s offer.  For Marcion pictures Cain and other sinners flocking to Christ gleeful for the liberation from the hellish prison, while Noah and the Old Testament righteous preferred to wait in Hades until their righteousness was recognized by God – they assumed Christ’s offer was some kind of trick to draw them away from Torah (See Robert Grant’s IRENAEUS OF LYONS, Chapter 2).]

Christ is risen!      Indeed He is risen!

Where in the World is Adam?

“Thus, from the first moment of disobedience, when Adam and Eve discover they are naked and flee from the gaze of their Creator, God goes to search for them: “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9) This call of God resonates beyond boundaries of the primitive Eden; it reverberates throughout the entire history of Israel and of humanity, God moves to search for the lost sheep, and when He has found it, He, full of joy, brings it back on His shoulders to the sheep pen. Upon His return, He gathers friends and neighbors for rejoicing (Lk 15:4-7). Again we perceive echoes of the heavenly feast.

However, the search for the lost human being is long and hard. The Orthodox Church, at Matins of Holy Saturday, in the wake of St.Irenaues states: ‘You descended to earth to find Adam, but You did not find him on earth, O Master, and You went to search for him in Hades.’ (stanza 25).” (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pg.55)

Job: My Redeemer Lives!

A very powerful and important part of Roman Catholic liturgical piety regarding the resurrection of Christ includes the reading of Job 19:23-27.   Job proclaims, “My redeemer lives!”, which is often interpreted as his belief in the resurrection.

The focus on the Messiah as Redeemer is a very important element in the thinking of especially Western Christian piety since medieval times, where it fits well into ideas of the substitutionary death of Christ and a piety which focuses on Christ the victim who dies for (pays the price for) our sins. 

Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon in his small commentary on Job, THE TRIAL OF JOB. Writes about Job 19: 

Then come the truly shining lines of the book, where Job places all his hope in God, his ‘Redeemer’ or Vindicator in the latter days (verses [19:]23-27). This noun, go’el, is the active participial form of the verb ga’al, meaning ‘to avenge.’  … the Christian transmission of Holy Scripture has preferred the words ‘redeem’ and ‘purchase’ to translate this Hebrew verb. Thus, Psalm 74 (73):2 says that God ‘redeemed’ or ‘purchased’ (ga’alta) His people in their Exodus from Egypt.

Reardon’s comment that the root word translated as “redeemer” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to avenge” caused me to wonder whether the emphasis on Jesus as redeemer or the one who pays the price for something was too weak a translation of the word, though it fits well into Western Christian piety and has shaped that piety.
I began to wonder whether the Orthodox focus on Jesus Christ as the conqueror of death, the victor over mortality rather than the victim of death, perhaps in some way better captured the imagery of Christ as Savior.  The Western Christian debates between Catholics and Protestants swirled around the notion of Jesus as the one time redeemer who paid the price for our sins, whereas Orthodoxy tended to focus on Christ as the destroyer of death, liberating all humankind from death’s insatiable appetite for human flesh. 

Orthodox biblical scholar Silviu Bunta in a personal email to me wrote: 

Redeemer is not a good translation. The go’el was not just someone who paid a price. The passive implication in the English redeemer is not there in the Hebrew go’el. Actually ga’al most probably means more to vindicate than to redeem or to avenge. To avenge is too far from the sense of rescue which ga’al certainly carries, but to redeem is also too far from the sense of vengeance, which ga’al also carries. In common language ga’al was mostly used for tribal or familial relations in which one person, the go’el, would act as the defender of the tribal or family rights. Probably that’s what Job asks for in ch. 19 (a kin with divine powers, like the god of his family). So I would say that ga’al has three different connotations which no one English word can encompass: kinship, defense, and vengeance. Certainly the go’el is not one who just “takes it,” passively. Job 19 is far from fitting this picture. Clearly Job wants the full destructive force of his go’el.

The Orthodox understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not that He passively paid some price for our sins, but rather than He actively came to destroy death by His own death and then he liberated all the dead from Hades.   As Chrysostom says in his famous Pascha sermon, “not one dead remains in the grave.”    The very purpose of the incarnation of God in Jesus is so that Jesus can die in order to destroy death  (see my blog, Why did God become human?).   The Orthodox icon of Holy Saturday clearly portrays Christ harrowing Hades and liberating those trapped in death’s pit, raising them up with Himself in the Resurrection of new life.

Jesus’ death was voluntary – He willfully submits Himself to execution and death, in order to go to Sheol, to the place of the dead, so that He can destroy death and  to liberate all the dead.  This is the great act of salvation which we celebrate each Pascha.  Christ dies for our sins, not to passively pay some ransom, but in order to destroy death (1 Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14).

Crucified Love


The earth trembled; its foundations

shook like silt; the sun, chagrined,

fled the scene, and every mundane

element scattered in retreat. The day

became the night: for light could not endure

Icon by Daryl Cochran

the image of the Master hanging on a tree.

All creation was astonished, perplexed

and stammering, What new mystery is this?

The Judge is judged, and yet He holds his peace;

the Invisible One is utterly exposed, and yet

is not ashamed; the Incomprehensible is grasped,

and will not turn indignant; the Immensity

is circumscribed, and acquiesces; the absolutely

Unattainable suffers, and yet does not avenge;

the Immortal dies, and utters not a word;

the Celestial is pressed into the earthen grave,

and He endures! What new mystery is this?

The whole creation, I say, was astonished;

but, when our Lord stood up in Hades –

trampling death underfoot, subduing

the strong one, setting every captive free –

then all creation saw clearly that for its sake

the Judge was condemned in order

that He might show mercy, was bound

that He might loose, was seized

that He might release, suffered

that He might show compassion, died

that He might give life, was laid in a grave

that He might rise, might raise

  (Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity, pg. 9-10)

Great & Holy Saturday (2010)


“Another Church Father, St. Cyril of Jerusalem 313-387), develops the theme of the Descent into Hell in his Catechesis:  Death was afraid when it saw this New Man descending unfettered into Hell. Why does the sight of him make you afraid, O guardian of hell? What unwonted fear has come upon you? Death has fled and this flight only betrays its fear. The holy Prophets come to meet him, Moses, the Law-giver, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and John the Baptist, the witness who had asked: “Are you the one who is to come or should we await another?” He redeemed all the righteous ones that death had swallowed up…Then all the righteous said: “O Death, where is your victory: Hell, where is your sting?” The Conqueror has set us free! (14:19)…(Observe) great silence, for the king is asleep. The earth shook, then it was quiet, for God fell asleep in the flesh, and He has gone to awaken those who have slept for centuries…He is going to deliver from their pain the fettered Adam, and Eve held captive with him, He who is both their God and their son. Let us descend with him, that we might see the alliance between God and man. There is Adam, the first father who, being the first one created, is buried deeper than all those condemned. There is Abel who is the first to have died and who, as the first righteous pastor, prefigures the unjust murder of Christ. There is Noah, a figure of Christ, who built the great arch of God, the Church…There is Abraham, the Father of Christ, the one who offered to God, by a dagger yet without a dagger, a sacrifice of blood yet one without death. There dwell Moses…Daniel…Jeremiah…There is Jonah in the monster which is able to contain the world, meaning hell…And among the prophets there is one who cries out: “From the belly of Sheol hear my supplication, heed my cry!” And another: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord, hear my voice!” And another: “Let thy face shine and we shall be saved!”…”    (Michel Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon)

Christ Conquers Hell – Even Those of our own Making

 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
   Or where shall I flee from your presence?
 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!   (Psalm 139:7-8)

A frequently asked question is “What is hell?”   Some think it a place of physical torture of sinners, others believe it to be a state of being (perhaps self created).  Whatever it may be, Christianity affirms that Christ our God has conquered it, in order to submit it to the will, love and lordship of God. 

As St. John Chrysostom says in his famous Paschal Sermon

The One Who was the Prisoner of Death has utterly destroyed it;
the One Who descended to Hades took it captive. …

So, Death, where is your sting?
So, Hades, where is your victory?

CHRIST IS RISEN, and you are overthrown!
CHRIST IS RISEN, and the demons have fallen!
CHRIST IS RISEN and the angels rejoice!
CHRIST IS RISEN and life takes command!
CHRIST IS RISEN, and not a single corpse remains in the grave!

John Chryssavgis writes in his book , BEYOND THE SHATTERED IMAGE:

“Our joyful optimism lies in the conviction that there is no place devoid of God.

Hell- that is to say, the place where God is not- can only be created as a result of an estrangement between our world and God.  If we hold on to the earth and the fullness thereof (Psalm 91:1), then everything (even death and destruction) is a ferment of divine life, the air itself (no matter how polluted) is vibrant with the Spirit.  Beyond the shattered image, there always lies the reflection of the divine reality that has no end and the re-presentation of the vision of God that knows no darkness.  This faith alone can transform evil and pain, while disclosing a loving purpose beyond suffering and isolation.”   

The very icon of Christ descending into Sheol/Hades is one which depicts Christ filling all things, even that region of outer darkness and death so that there is indeed no place where God is not.  (Ephesians 4:9)  And humanly speaking, this means that where ever we are – even in a state of despair, place of pain, the darkest reaches of our minds and when we feel totally forsaken – no place is beyond the reach and presence of God.  That is a truth to give us hope in times and places when we seem unable to believe. 

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Romans 8:35, 38-39).