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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Holy Saturday - Descent into Hades

In the Apostle's Creed, we profess that Christ "suffered, died, and was buried. He descended into hell (Gk hades, Latin inferos). On the third day, he rose again from the dead...."

The ancient Greek Fathers have a wonderful way of expressing this part of our creed in their homilies and in their icons.

The icon to the left is based upon
a fresco by Manuel Panselinos (ca. 13th or 14th century) in the Protaton Church at Karyes, Mt. Athos, Greece. It is called "The Resurrection" and also "Descent into Hades." I have a version of this icon hanging in my office at work.

The icon depicts Christ's triumphant descent into hades after His death on the Cross on Good Friday. We seen Him freeing those souls held in the bondage of death, and also bestowing freedom on those righteous souls who were as yet unable to enter Paradise. In this paschal icon these holy ones stand on either side of Christ, looking on in worshipful joy: King David, Solomon, Saint John the Baptist, Abel the Righteous, and the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Raising them up the Savior brings them into Paradise and sets them free. He also raises Adam and Eve by the hands from their tombs, symbolizing the freeing of mankind from its imprisonment in fallen nature that was accomplished by the Resurrection. Christ stands on the fallen gates or doors of Hell and Lucifer lies chained and crushed beneath them, symbolizing the victory of the divine over evil. (source).

In the Divine Office (i.e. Liturgy of the Hours) for Holy Saturday, the Office of Readings has a ancient homily from the early days of the Church, taken from the Patrologia Graeca. It gives a wonderful description of what is depicted in the icon above. Here's an excerpt:
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you.... [source]
Have a blessed Easter!
God bless,