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)


Holy Saturday (2017)

“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.

Holy Saturday (2016)

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)

Previous: Holy Friday 2016

Next:  Pascha 2016


Holy Saturday (2015)

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:

baptismc“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.”

(Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL, p 150)

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)

Christ, the incarnate God, comes to earth precisely to save humanity from the power of sin.

“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)

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) 


Prophet Jonah (II)

In the previous blog, The Holy Prophet Jonah, we learned about how suffering is part of the message of the Book of Jonah.  Jonah suffers in not wanting to warn the Ninevites, Israel’s enemy, about God’s plan to destroy the city unless the people repent of the evil they are doing.  Jonah does not want to deliver a message which would save the people of Nineveh from destruction.  He suffers in being swallowed by the whale, enduring three days in the watery grave of the whale’s stomach before being vomited up on the shore.  He delivers God’s message and the Ninevites heed that warning and repent, once again to Job’s anguish.

When God saw what the [Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.   But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray You, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech You, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  (Jonah 3:10-4:3)

Jonah, the faithful Israelite, who must have known the story of Noah and the Great flood, does not know God to be vindictive and vengeful and full of retribution.  Rather Jonah knows God to be gracious, merciful, constant in love, slow to anger and ever giving people the chance to repent, even the enemy of His people.  Some believers want to only focus on those stories in the Bible in which God vengefully visits punishment on sinners.  This is not the God that Jonah knew, and his prophecy is part of Scripture as well.   We cannot ignore the entirety of scripture because we prefer one story or idea about God.

When Jonah shows pity for a plant that was shading him dies, God confronts the vengeful and angry Jonah.

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”  (Jonah 4:9-11)

God shows Jonah that He suffers for His creation – the Ninevites are portrayed as being none too bright (they don’t know their right hand from their left!  The directionally challenged might be happy to know that God is merciful to these folk).   The Ninevites don’t follow the right religion either.  And yet despite their description as being of the wrong religion and pathetically hopeless by any measure of intelligence, God cares for them too, and has no desire to destroy them but hopes they too will repent of their sins.

The story of the Prophet Jonah is a story about the nature of the ever patient, merciful and loving Creator of the universe.  It confronts religious and ethnic bigotry.

And yet, that isn’t the most important aspect of the story, for its importance and its prophecy is only revealed in Jesus Christ.  As St. Matthew records in  his Gospel:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!  (Matthew 12:38-41)

While many modern Christians want to debate the historicity of the story, the New Testament does not discuss the literal integrity of the story.   St. Matthew and St. Luke both mention Jonah but only as a prophecy of Christ.   Matthew and Luke are not so concerned with the historical event but see Jonah’s three days in  the watery grave of the whale’s belly as a prophecy and prototype of Christ’s resurrection. Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the whale is not reported in the Gospels for its miraculous content.   The importance of the Jonah narrative to the Gospel writers is it prepares believers for the death and resurrection of the Messiah.  Thus the Jonah story can only be fully appreciated from a Christian point of view when one reads it as prophecy.  The story can be stood in itself, but after the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the story makes sense as prophecy which Christ fulfills.

The prophetic calling of Jonah in the New Testament is not so much his being told to warn the Ninevites as it is to prepare future generations to understand the death and resurrection of the Messiah as something God planned for His Christ.  Thus the story of Jonah is rescued from being nothing more than about some unusual ancient event which has no real significance to the modern believer.  The prophecy of Jonah finds its fulfillment in Christ and it is a typology which only makes complete sense with the resurrection of Christ, which is the event it pointed to.  Its importance is experienced by us when we read it on Holy Saturday and understand it as one of many events which are a type of the resurrection.  Jonah’s emergence from the belly of the whale is preparing us to recognize the resurrection of Christ from the dead as proof that He is in fact the chosen Messiah despite the crucifixion.  In the resurrection we come to recognize Jonah’s experience as a prophecy and prototype.

In the Paschal Nocturnes Canon which we sing before our processional celebration of Christ’s resurrection, we joyfully proclaim:

Caught but not held in the belly of the whale was Jonah; for, bearing the image of You, Who suffered and was buried.  He came forth from the monster as from a bridal chamber…

And then in the Canon of Pascha sung after the proclamation of the Resurrection Gospel we hear the words:

You descended into the nethermost parts of the earth, shattering the eternal bars that held us captive, O Christ, and on the third day, like Jonah from the whale, You arose from the tomb.

Jonah’s story and prophecy are part of our celebration of the resurrection.

Holy Saturday: The Goodnews

 St. Ephrem the Syrian writes in one of his poems about Christ’s descent into Hades, an event we commemorate on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox tradition:

“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.

Vigen Guroian quotes the following ancient Armenian Ode for the Paschal season:

“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)

A Walk Through Holy Week (II)

[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.

The Death of Death

Pascha: The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

Clearly in Orthodox hymns and theology, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection all have to do with God’s own plan to deal with death, the last enemy to be destroyed.   Some Christian theologies focus almost exclusively on Christ dealing with sin, and generally this means a retributive justice in which sinners are punished and the righteous are saved.  Some Orthodox writers thought a system in which Christ comes only to save the righteous is not much of a miracle at all.  As. St. Paul expresses it:

“While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:6-8)

It is not the righteous who were in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Thus on the cross, Christ dies not only for our sins but for us sinners.  He goes to the place of the dead to defeat that last enemy: death itself.









As the above hymn indicates when Christ “ascended the cross” (the implication being he chose to be lifted up on the cross; neither Rome, nor the Jews nor Satan nor death itself could force him to be nailed to the cross), Christ did not annihilate His enemies.  He did not command the earth to swallow them up – He didn’t send anyone to hell or kill anyone for what they were doing.  Not only did He not further populate hell with those who were murdering Him, He voluntarily went to the place of the dead, and emptied Hades of all the dead who were there – the righteous and the unrighteous.  Christ came to grant life not death to those who were spiritually dead.  This is the joyous celebration of Pascha.

“In the second century the subject of Christ’s descent into Hades was an inseparable part of the paschal divine services. Secondly, it shows that, already in second century Christian hymnography, Christ’s redemptive sacrifice was viewed as pertinent for all people without exception. Thus it speaks not of Christ saving the righteous but of his forgiving all ‘those who sullied themselves with sin.’ After destroying death, vanquishing the enemy, trampling down hell, and binding the devil, he calls them to himself in order to grant them forgiveness of sins and to lead them up to God the Father.” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades, an Orthodox Perspective, pg.36)

As we in the Orthodoxy Church sing at Holy Friday Vespers:

When You, the Redeemer of all, were placed in a tomb all Hell’s powers quaked in fear.

Its bars were broken, its gates were smashed.

Its mighty reign was brought to an end, for the dead came forth alive from their tombs, casting off the bonds of their captivity.

Adam was filled with joy!

He gratefully cried out to You, O Christ: “Glory to Your condescension, O Lover of man!”

Adam, the first human and who together with Eve were the first sinners, are saved by Christ’s resurrection.  Adam is saved not because he is righteous – it was his sin that is considered to be the original sin of humankind.  Adam is saved because Christ defeats that final enemy – death, which held Adam captive as a result of that ancestral sin.  Christ destroys sin and death thus liberating all the dead, including all who had sinned.  God wishes not the death of the sinners but that we turn from our sin to Him.  The descent of the incarnate God into Hades makes it possible for everyone to experience the salvation of God.

Great and Holy Saturday (2012)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote: “You must know that this type is found in ancient history. For when that cruel and ruthless tyrant Pharaoh oppressed the free and high-born people of the Hebrews, God sent Moses to bring them out of the evil thralldom of the Egyptians. The door-posts were anointed with the blood of the lamb, that the Destroyer might pass by those houses which had the sign of the blood. And so the Hebrew people was marvelously delivered…Now turn from the ancient to the recent, from the type to the reality. There we have Moses sent from God to Egypt; here, Christ sent by his Father into the world: there, Moses had to lead forth an oppressed people out of Egypt: here, Christ rescues mankind when overwhelmed with sin: there, the blood of the lamb was the spell against the Destroyer; here, the blood of the unblemished Lamb, Jesus Christ, put the demons to flight: there that tyrant pursued to the sea the people of God; and in like manner this brazen and shameless demon follows the people of God to the very waters of salvation. The tyrant of old was drowned in the sea, and the present tyrant is destroyed in the saving water.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem in From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers by Jean Danielou, S.J., pg. 183)