[This is the continuation and conclusion of A Walk Through Holy Week (2013).]
The path to salvation for the ancient Israelites included sacrifice and redemption. So too Christ’s real torture, suffering and death are for us the spiritual path of salvation. His death on the Cross is not the result only of our sin, but also is the sign of God’s total love for us. His death on the cross accomplishes far more than the forgiveness of our sins. St. John Chrysostom tells us:
“What profit came from that death on the cross? These are the blessings it achieved: evil was destroyed, the wounds of the soul were set right by a wondrous cure and a healing beyond belief. See how Isaiah foretold that when he said: ‘We had all gone astray like sheep. Man had wandered in his way. The chastisement of our peace was upon him. By his bruises we are all healed.’” (APOLOGIST , TFOTC: Vol 73, p 206)
St. Gregory Nanzianzen (d. 391AD) offers us in his poetry an understanding of what motivates God to offer His Son in sacrifice, and what Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection:
“You descend into the valley of the dead and to the gates of darkness desiring to illuminate and shine upon the [human] race,
To raise Adam, the father of mortals, for whose sake you assumed and carried the image of the mortal.
You descend into a deep and gloomy darkness of Hades,
Having accepted death from enemies and having left your Mother sorrowful. But the good will of the Father will slay you In order to bring salvation to others.
It was the Father’s goodness that brought you to death.
O bitter mourning! The earth receives you, O Child, when you descend to the dark gates of Hades in order to pierce Hades by the sharpest arrow.
For you descend there alone in order to take the dead [with you] and not in order to be taken by the dead
And to order to liberate all, for you alone are free.” (in Hilarion Alfeyev’s CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL, p 61)
Christ descended into the place of the dead (Hades, Sheol) like Moses descended into Egypt to free those held captive and enslaved. (see also Fr. Ted’s blog, Great And Holy Saturday 2010). Christ came from heaven and was incarnate on earth precisely to go to the place of the dead and to destroy the power of sin, death, Hades, and Satan. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387AD) offers an insight into how Christ’s descent into Hades was experienced by those enslaved to death:
“Speaking to all those who had been in chains since the beginning of the world, Adam spoke thus: ‘I hear the steps of one coming toward us!’ And as he spoke, the Lord entered, bearing the victorious weapon of the cross… And having taken hold of his hand he said to him: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light (Eph 5:14). I am your God, and for your sake I became your son. Arise, you who were sleeping, for I did not create you to remain bound in hell. Having arisen from the dead, I am the Life of the dead… Arise and let us depart from here, from death to life, from corruption to immortality, from darkness to eternal life…” (quoted in Michel Quenot’s THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON, p 77)
Many of the historical events recorded in the Old Testament were interpreted by the Christians to prefigure the events in the life of Christ and the salvation which He won for all of us. Thus the Old Testament readings for Holy Saturday are best understood when they are seen to prefigure and prophesy the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This way of reading the Scriptures began among the Jews themselves before Christ and continued to be the way the authors of the New Testament and the Patristic writers interpreted the Scriptures of Israel. The Vespers-Liturgy of Holy Saturday morning is replete with such prototypical lessons from the Old Testament.
“The symbols of the Cross so far considered all had some reference to its shape. There is another group which refers to the material, in which the symbolism is that of wood, and the truth expressed is still the power and virtue of the Cross. In this group, wood is generally associated with water, so that the context appears to be a sacramental one, water constituting the matter of the sacrament, wood symbolizing the divine power communicated to it. Since, therefore, it is the power of the Cross which acts through the water and communicates to it the power of effecting the divine operations, writers single out those cases where wood appears to be endowed with a special efficacy.
Here once again the Old Testament provides the first series of testimonia. Thus the author of Barnabus writes: ‘Let us enquire whether the Lord took care to signify beforehand concerning the water and the Cross’ (XI,1), and gives as an example Ps. 1:3: ‘the tree that is planted by the streams of waters.’ He continues: ‘Ye perceive how He pointed out the water and the Cross at the same time. . . . Blessed are they that have set their hope on the Cross, and go down into the water’ (XI,8). The same quotation is given by Justin (Dial. LXXXVI, 4) in a group of testimonia. . . .
Justin give a collection of testimonia relating to wood: the Tree of Life in Paradise; the staff of Moses which divides the waters of the Red Sea, makes water spring from the rock, and sweetens the bitter waters of Mara; the staves thrown by Jacob into the water ducts; Jacob’s ladder; the blossoming rod of Aaron; the stem of Jesse; the oak of Mamre; the seventy willow trees that the people find near the twelve springs after crossing the Jordan; the rod and staff which ‘comfort David’ in Ps. 22:4; the staff which designates Judah; the wood of the axe thrown into the Jordan; Justin follows up the last example with an allusion to Christ’s ‘being crucified on the tree and sanctifying us by water’ (Dial. LXXXVI, 1-6). Finally, in a latter passage he adds the combination of the wood of the Ark and the Deluge: ‘Christians have been begotten anew (of Christ) by water and faith and wood, which contained the mystery of the Cross, even as Noah also was saved by the wood of the Ark when he was borne upon the waters’ (Dial CXXXVIII, 2).” (Jean Danielou, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY, pp 276-277)
On Holy Saturday the 15 Old Testament texts read in the Vespers-Liturgy remind us of all of these symbols and metaphors which the earliest Christians saw when they read the Scriptures. The symbols and metaphors of the Old Testament help us to understand the reception of the catechumens into the Church on this day. St. John Chrysostom addresses the newly baptized Christians of Holy Week in his day this way:
“Before yesterday you were captives, but now you are free and citizens of the Church; lately you lived in the shame of your sins, but now you live in freedom and righteousness. You are not only free, but also holy; not only holy, but also righteous; not only righteous, but also sons; not only sons, but also brothers and sisters of Christ; not only brothers and sisters of Christ, but also joint heirs; not only joint heirs, but also members; not only members, but also the temple; not only the temple, but also instruments of the Spirit.” (Theodore Stylianapoloulos, ENCOURAGED BY THE SCRIPTURES, p 118)
This blog series is now available as a PDF at A Walk Through Holy Week (PDF).
You will be able to find all 2013 Holy Week related blogs at Holy Week 2013 (PDF) when it is available.
You can find links to all other Holy Week, Great Lent and Pascha blogs at Fr. Ted’s Blogs as PDFs.