“I AM the Life of the Dead”

NO ONE SAW JESUS RISE from the dead. The Scriptures simply say that the tomb was found to be empty early on that Sunday morning. Later the risen Christ appeared to His disciples, as we read in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles. This is why the Byzantine rules governing icons prohibit showing Christ rising from the dead. Instead they set forth two scenes for Paschal icons: the women at the empty tomb and the “harrowing of hell,” Christ’s descent into death.

In the description of St Peter’s first address to the people on Pentecost, we read that he applied the prophetic Psalm 16:8-11 to Christ, saying that the psalmist “,,,spoke concerning the Resurrection of Christ that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).

Christ’s time among the dead was described with some detail in the first universal epistle of St Peter. We are told that Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah….” (1 Peter 3:19–20) and that “the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged as men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6).

This concept of Christ enlightening those in the darkness of death was thought to be so central to our faith that it was included in early creeds, We still profess, when we say the (2nd century) Apostles’ Creed, that Christ “…descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.” The English version translated as “hell” the Greek word katotata (the lowest region), the place of the dead.

Early Images in Our Liturgy

“The Descent of Christ to the Depths” is a third-century text incorporated in later writings, such as the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Pilate. This text – much abridged here – contains a dramatic scene involving Satan, Hades (the realm of death), and those held captive there.

“Behold, Satan, the prince and chief of death, said to Hades, ‘Prepare to receive Jesus, who boasts that He is the Son of God, and yet is a man afraid of death…’

“As they were speaking, suddenly there came a voice like thunder, crying ‘Remove your gates, you princes. Be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.’ …Then Hades said to his wicked ministers, ‘Shut firm the gates of brass and put on them bars of iron…’

When all the saints heard it, they answered, rebuking Hades, “Open the gates that the King of Glory may come in.”…

“Stretching forth His hand, the Lord said, ‘Come to Me, all you holy ones who bear My image and likeness…”

“And the Lord, stretched forth His hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and over all His saints. He took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell, with all the saints following Him… and brought them all into the glory and beauty of paradise” (From The Descent of Christ to the Depths 4, 5, 8, 9).

This text is the earliest source we have for our icon of Pascha. It does not attempt to describe Christ’s physical resurrection but the spiritual reality of what His Death and Resurrection accomplished. The Lord Jesus, in radiant garments, is shown standing on the brazen gates of Hades (also called the “Doors of Death”), which are broken and have fallen in the form of a cross, illustrating the belief that by His death on the cross, Christ has trampled down death At the bottom of the icon, we see Hades as a chasm of darkness, often with various pieces of broken locks and chains strewn about.

Our paschal icon contains a second image from The Descent of Christ to the Depths. Christ is shown pulling Adam and Eve up out of Hades, surrounded by other righteous figures from the Old Testament, “the saints” mentioned in The Descent. In many versions of this icon Christ is not shown holding them by the hands, but by their wrists, to stress that mankind could not attach himself to God because of his ancestral sin; rather it is Christ’s work alone which effects our recreation.

The Dialogue with Satan

This image of the brass gates in The Descent was taken in turn from Psalm 23, depicting a conqueror’s entry into the city. In The Descent this psalm is used to describe Christ, the true King of Glory, breaking down the gates of Hades and leading mankind from the prison of death to paradise.

We celebrate this confrontation with sin and death in our Paschal services. At the vespers of Pascha on Great Saturday, we sing of the liberation of the dead: “Today Hades tearfully sighs: ‘My power has crumbled, for the Shepherd crucified has raised Adam; and those whom I had possessed, I lost. Those whom I had swallowed by my might, I have given up completely: for the Crucified has emptied the graves, and the power of death has vanished!’ O Lord, glory to Your Cross and to Your holy Resurrection!”

In the Middle Eastern Patriarchates, Psalm 23 is recited as the Paschal procession stands in darkness before the doors of the church. The priest outside and a “Satan,” (reader) inside recreate this dialogue:

Priest: (With cross in hand pounds on the church door, saying) Lift up your gates, you princes; and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.

Reader: Who is this King of Glory?

Priest: The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your gates, you princes; and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.

Reader; Who is this King of Glory?

Priest: The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory.

The doors burst open and the congregation enters the brilliantly lit church, becoming themselves an icon of redeemed humanity.

Christ in Hades (St Epiphanius of Cyprus)

“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. It 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 has become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants, I now by my own autho-rity command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. Sleeper, awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hades. 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 in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.”