The souls bound in the chains of hades, O Christ, seeing Thy compassion without measure, pressed onward to the light with joyful steps, praising the eternal Pascha.
(Matins, Paschal Canon of Saint John of Damascus)
The awesome mystery of the Lord’s bodily resurrection from the dead was providentially kept hidden from human eyes. Although there were many eyewitnesses to the Resurrected One, there were none of the actual “moment” of the resurrection. There was no access to the tomb until the stone had been rolled away and its emptiness was revealed to the myrrhbearing women. The emptiness of the tomb was a “sign” of the resurrection of Christ; while the angelic voice – “He has risen, he is not here” – was the first announcement of the Gospel of the Risen Lord, thus interpreting the sign. The Lord then appeared to both the myrrhbearing women and the disciples, fully affirming the meaning of the empty tomb and the angelic proclamation. Yet, to repeat, the “moment” of the resurrection remains inaccessible to human perception.
For this reason, artistic depictions of Christ emerging from the tomb, banner in hand, rising in a blinding light over the hapless and sprawling bodies of the guard, are “later” and inauthentic images of the resurrection, though they contain the truth that the “Lord has risen indeed!” In the Western artistic tradition, the most famous of such depictions is probably that of Matthias Grunewald. Such images have also become popular in Orthodox iconography over the centuries, as seen on processional banners, portable icons and walls. Once such images enter the Church, they stubbornly refuse to leave!
There do exist two authentic icons of the Resurrection, one being of a more historical nature and the other theological. The historical icon of the Resurrection is that of the myrrhbearing women gazing in wonder at the empty grave cloths of Christ lying in the tomb while an angel (or two) is further depicted sitting inside the tomb as recorded in the Gospels. This icon captures the startling moment when the myrrhbearers are overcome with “fear and trembling” together with wonder and concern at not seeing the body of the Lord in the tomb.
The theological icon simply entitled the “Anastasis” or “Resurrection,” is also referred to as the “Descent Into Hades.” Here the victorious Christ, resplendent in white garments, Cross in hand, is depicted shattering the gates of the biblical realm of the dead (sheol in Hebrew; hades in Greek; often, though imprecisely, translated as “Hell”) decisively and forcefully grabbing Adam and Eve – representative of humanity and the righteous awaiting deliverance (cf. Hebrews 11:39-40) – by the hand and pulling them out of this darkened realm restored to fellowship with God. As iconography and hymnography complement one another, a paschal hymn from the Vespers of Holy Saturday illuminates the meaning of this powerful icon:
Today Hell cries out groaning:
My power has been trampled upon.
The Shepherd is crucified and Adam is raised.
I have been deprived of those whom I ruled.
Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up.
He who was crucified has emptied the tombs.
The power of death has been vanquished.
Glory to Thy Cross and Resurrection, O Lord.
The Fathers found a clear allusion of this descent into hades in a passage from I Peter: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formally did not obey … For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God” (I Peter 3:18-4:6).
Surprisingly, however, the main source for this icon appears to be the 2nd century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Here we find a dramatic and rather humanly touching description of this profound theological truth: “And behold, suddenly Hades trembled, and the gates of death and the bolts were shattered, and the iron bars were broken and fell to the ground, and everything was laid open … Then the Lord Jesus, the Savior of all, affectionate and most mild saluting Adam kindly, said to him: ‘Peace be to you, Adam, with your children, through immeasurable ages to ages!’ Amen. Then father Adam, falling forward at the feet of the Lord, and being raised erect, kissed his hands, and shed many tears, saying, testifying to all: ‘Behold, the hands which fashioned me!’ And he said to the Lord: ‘You have come, O King of glory, delivering men, and bringing them into Your everlasting Kingdom.’ Then also our mother Eve in like manner fell forward at the feet of the Lord, and was raised erect, and kissed His hands, and poured forth tears in abundance, and said, testifying to all: ‘Behold the hands which made me!’”
In other words, “Death’s dominion has been shattered.” Can Christianity survive without this being the ultimate “Good News,” that “through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
What of the non-resurrected Christ emerging from certain biblical scholars and other circles now demanding equal time in the popular press and visual media? Is this even remotely consistent with the full content of the New Testament? Does such a “Christ” truly inspire and offer hope to the hopeless? I would answer my own questions with decisive “NO!” However, the apostle Paul reminds us that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). This “Yes” seems fully convincing when we acknowledge Christ as “...the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings of the earth.”
Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!