The Harrowing of Hades

FROM ITS BEGINNING on Lazarus Saturday until the cracking of the last red egg of Pascha, our Great Week and Bright Week services immerse us in a wealth of images, both verbal and visual, of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. In the midst of this sensory overload, there are some evocative symbols whose voices may not be heard. Yet they bring us to the heart of the Paschal Mystery.

The Newly-Illumined On Pascha our regular Saturday evening Vespers is combined with the first Divine Liturgy of the Feast. Since the Matins and Divine Liturgy during the night are so popular in our parishes, it became common to serve the Vesper-Liturgy earlier in the day. As a result many people never see this extraordinary service.

The Vesper-Liturgy includes fifteen Old Testament readings instead of the usual three. Since the catechumens are taken out at this point in the service to be baptized, these additional Scripture passages would be read until the baptisms were completed. Then the newly-baptized would be brought into the congregation during the singing of “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.” Their first full participation in the Liturgy would be on this blessed night of their baptism.

Laurel Is for Victory

The Epistle reading at this Liturgy is not followed by the usual Alleluia. Instead Psalm 81/82 is chanted with verse 8 as its refrain: “Arise, O God and judge the earth, and You shall inherit all the nations.”

In the liturgical symbolism of our Church, Holy Saturday recalls the time Christ’s body lay in the tomb while His spirit was among the dead in what the Greeks called Hades. In singing this Psalm, the Church is calling on Christ to rise from the dead and destroy the power of death, freeing people of every race and nation from its control. As we sing in one of the hymns at this service: “Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: ‘My power is destroyed! I received a mortal as if He were merely one of the dead, but I was powerless to hold Him; and, along with Him I shall lose those over whom I ruled, I held the dead from all ages; but behold, He is raising them all!’”

In the Greek tradition the priest strews bay laurel leaves and flower petals throughout the church during this Psalm. In the ancient world laurel was a symbol of victory or achievement. Wreaths of laurel were awarded to the victors in athletic games; that practice continues at the Grand Prix races to this day. In our liturgy the laurel leaves represent Christ’s victory over death, the fruit of His death and resurrection.

It is a custom in Cyprus that, while the chanters are singing and the priest is strewing the leaves, people stamp their feet, bang on the pews with sticks, even clang pots and pans as a sign of the “harrowing of hell.” The noise graphically portrays the shaking of the foundations of the earth which preceded the Resurrection (see Matthew 28:2) as Christ smashes the locks and gates of Hades and destroys death.

In the silence that speaks volumes when the psalm is finished, we see the church floor covered with the “shattered gates and broken chains of Hades.” Then the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed: “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:6).

“Have You Any Food?”

At the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the priest blesses a special commemorative bread called the Artos. Unlike the bread offered for the Divine Liturgy, this festive bread is baked with herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, mahleb, fennel, grains of paradise and anise. Depending on local custom, lemon zest, almond extract, honey, olive oil, eggs, or rose water and even red wine may be added to the dough as well. The loaf may be stamped with a cross or an icon of the Resurrection. In many places an actual icon is placed on top of the loaf for the people to venerate at the end of the service.

The Artos is carried in procession and venerated at every service during Bright Week. It is consumed only after this week of Paschal celebration is concluded. How can we explain the unique role this bread plays in our liturgy?

When Christ rose from the dead, the first reaction of those who saw Him was disbelief. As St Luke describes it, “…they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). The risen Lord’s response was “Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:37). Even that was not enough to convince them all. Luke continues: “But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb and He took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24:41-43).

The disciples believed in the reality of the Resurrection when they saw Christ eating. In St John’s Gospel, we see that the disciples were out fishing when “Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?” (John 21:5) Similarly, when the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples traveling to Emmaus, He ate with them and “He was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35).

The Artos, then, represents the true, physical nature of the risen Christ, demonstrated when He ate and drank with His disciples, although He had no need of food. Eating what was offered to Him showed that He had not abandoned His humanity when He rose from the dead. As St Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Epistle to the Smyrneans, 3:3, “After the Resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father.” His body that rose from among the dead is the same one that suffered and died. Now this body shares in the life of glory.”

Stichera of Holy Saturday Vesper-Liturgy

Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: “Better that I had never received the One whom Mary bore, for when He came to me, He undid my power. He trampled the brazen gates, and, being God, He raised up the souls which once I held.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

Today, Hades sighs and cries aloud: “My power has been swallowed up! The shepherd has been crucified and has raised Adam up. I am deprived of those over whom I used to rule. I have vomited up all those whom I devoured in my strength. He who was crucified has emptied the graves. Death’s power has lost its strength.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he said: “God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath! This is the day of rest on which the only–begotten Son of God kept the Sabbath in the flesh by resting in death from all His works according to the plan of salvation. Returning again to what He was through the Resurrection, He granted us eternal life. He alone is good and the Lover of mankind.