The very heart of Orthodox life is the Church’s celebration of Holy Pascha or Easter: commemoration and reliving of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The evening matins service of that feast includes a beautiful and poignant homily by St John Chrysostom on the mercy of God—displayed in Jesus’ parable of the workers of the eleventh hour—who welcomes repentant sinners at any moment, regardless of how well they may have “kept the fast.”
Another major motif of the sermon is the “harrowing of Hell.” Personified Hades—the realm and power of death—is mocked, embittered, slain and overthrown. Having taken the dead body of the man Jesus, Hades “met God face to face.”
The background of this motif, and of its depiction in the paschal icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell, is found in the First Epistle of Peter (3:18-19) as well as in an apocryphal gospel of the third or fourth century, the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus. The theme of the descent into Hell (actually, into Sheol, the realm of the departed, followed by the destruction of Hell) was widespread in the early Church. The Gospel of Nicodemus preserves a fascinating, even humorous account of the event in the form of a dialogue between Satan, “the son of perdition,” and Hades, who attempts to fend off Christ’s onslaught of the gates of Hell.
[The following excerpts are taken from The Other Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 1984), pp. 376f.]
“I have pain in the stomach,” Hades declares to Satan. “Lazarus who was snatched from me before seems to me no good sign… Therefore I adjure you by your gifts and mine, do not bring him [Jesus] here. For I believe that he comes here to raise all the dead.
While Satan and Hades were speaking thus to one another, a loud voice like thunder sounded: “Lift up your gates, O rulers, and be lifted up, O everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in” (Ps. 23:7, LXX). When Hades heard this, he said to Satan, “Go out, if you can, and withstand him.” So Satan went out. Then Hades said to his demons, “Make fast well and strongly the gates of brass and the bars of iron…for if he comes in, woe will seize us…” [Again the voice sounds and angels announce the presence of “The Lord strong and mighty.”] And immediately at this answer the gates of brass were broken in pieces and the bars of iron were crushed, and all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains. And the King of glory entered in like a man, and all the dark places of Hades were illumined.
Hades at once cried out: “We are defeated, woe to us. But who are you, who have such authority and power? And who are you, who without sin have come here, you who appear small and can do great things, who are humble and exalted, slave and master, and have authority over the dead and the living? You were nailed to the cross, and laid in the sepulcher, and now you have become free and have destroyed all our power. Are you Jesus, of whom the chief ruler Satan said to us that through the cross and death you would inherit the whole world?”
Then the King of glory seized the chief ruler Satan by the head and handed him over to the angels, saying: “Bind with iron fetters his hands and his feet and his neck and his mouth.” Then he gave him to Hades and said: “Take him and hold him fast until my second coming.”
[Hades upbraids Satan:] “How were you bent on bringing down such a man into this darkness, through whom you have been deprived of all who have died since the beginning?”
While Hades was thus speaking with Satan, the King of glory stretched out his right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam and raised him up. Then he turned also to the rest and said: “Come with me, all you who have suffered death through the tree which this man touched. For behold, I raise you all up, again through the tree of the cross.” With that he put them all out. And our forefather Adam was seen to be full of joy, and said: “I give thanks to your majesty, O Lord, because you have brought me up from the lowest depth of Hades.” Likewise also all the prophets and the saints said: “We give you thanks, O Christ, Savior of the world, because you have brought up our life from destruction.”
When they had said this, the Savoir blessed Adam with the sign of the cross on his forehead. And he did this also to the patriarchs and prophets and martyrs and forefathers, and he took them and leaped up out of Hades. And as he went the holy fathers sang praises, following him and saying: “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord. Alleluia! To him be the glory of all the saints!”
In his homily St John Chrysostom evokes this triumphal imagery to proclaim the victory achieved by Christ through his death and resurrection. Like the paschal icon itself, Chrysostom calls to mind the life-giving truth that by his voluntary self-sacrifice, the eternal Son of God descends into death as a man, in order to raise us out of death, and to bestow on us the fullness of his own life and glory.
To all everywhere: CHRIST IS RISEN!