Blessed Night

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Melkite Eparchy of Newton
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BLESSED NIGHT by Fr. Jean Rene Bouchet

You who returned from Hades

with the company of the holy ones

Glory to You, 0 Risen Lord!

We can better grasp the significance of the Descent into Hades if we see it as a step on the paschal journey of Christ. He was sent by the Father and came into the world, then He left the world and returned to the right hand of the Father, bring­ing with Him the humanity that He went to seek in the very abysses of Death.

Jesus, Our Lord, the Christ

appeared to us from the bosom of His Father:

He came; He drew us out of darkness

and enlightened us with His Joyful Light.

Day has dawned upon all mankind,

the power of darkness is vanquished;

from His Light has come for us a light

which has given sight to our darkened eyes.

He has stretched out His Glory over all the earth

and lighted the deepest abysses;

Death is despoiled, darkness has fled,

the Gates of Hell are rent asunder.

He has illumined all creatures, –

in darkness from ancient times;

the dead who lay in the dust are raised up and give glory,

for there was for them salvation.

He has made real salvation, and given us Life,

and has been taken to His Father in the highest.

Thence He will come in His great Glory,

and open the eyes of all those who have awaited Him.

St. Ephrem the Syrian

From this perspective, the Descent into Hades expresses the love which God bore for us in Christ, and constitutes the decisive step on Christ’s journey towards man­kind seated in darkness and the shadow of death: He came to seek after us even there. In hell, He found humanity captive, from hell, He drew mankind forth.

The Fathers considered Christ to be “en route” since Adam first hid himself in the Garden of Paradise. (Adam in Hebrew is the term for mankind.) “Adam, where are you?” God is in search of man, whom He created in His own image and who yet fled like the prodigal son into a strange land. The entire Old Testament is seen as the jour­ney of the Son in search of the lost sheep. God the seeker and man the disfigured wanderer often form two choirs in the Prophets and the Psalms:

Return, 0 Son of Adam (Ps. 89)

Lord of Sabaoth, make us return (Ps. 79)

I hear my beloved, Behold he arrives,

Leaping over the mountains, Bounding over the hills

Open to me, my sister, my friend, my dove, my perfect one.

(Song of Songs 2:8 & 5:2)

Finally, John the Forerunner announces that the time is ripe, that He is coming, that He is at the gate: “In the midst of you, there is someone you do not know.”

The Word pitches His tent among men. Tirelessly He trods their pathways. Having not even a stone on which to lay His head, He announces life and sows it in the hearts of those whom death had marked as his own. The blind see, the deaf hear, Lazarus comes forth from the tomb and Zacchaeus joyfully receives Christ in his house. But He, in the midst of them, travels on His way until that clear morning when He stands before the gates of Jerusalem.

The city rejoices. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the tomb. He is welcomed by the crowd: “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” He goes, knowing the hour has come to pass from this world to the Father.

Daughter of Sion, rejoice; be lighthearted, O Church of God. Behold your King comes to you; go before Him, hasten to contemplate His Glory. Behold the salvation of the world: God goes towards the Cross and the Desired of the nations enters into Sion. Yesterday, Christ raised Lazarus from the dead: today, He Himself hastens towards death. Yesterday, He tore Lazarus from the shackles which held him: today He stretches out His hands to those who would bind Him. Yesterday, He pulled this man from the darkness: today, for the sake of mankind, He plunges into darkness and the shadow of death. And the Church rejoices. (St. Epiphanius)

The triumphal prelude does not hide the drama which is unfolding in darkness, but rather brings it to light, as will also the washing of feet and the last supper. It is the King of Israel, the Prince of Life who is coming, but His royalty is humble service, blood poured out, life given: “If I give to Christ the name of King, it is because I see Him crucified.” (St. John Chrysostom)

The procession of the Day of Palms has melted away. The children have been put to bed, the cloaks are folded, the palms withered. Now it is a band of soldiers es­corting Christ, and jeers replace the acclamations. Sweating blood and water, Jesus continues His journey in the night and in anguish: He quickens His step, for the Prodigal Son cannot be far. “Where is this rapid step taking You? Is there yet another wedding at Cana? (St. Romanos the Melodist)

They have dressed Him now in rags: a red cloth for a cloak, a crown of thorns for His head and, for a scepter, He holds in His hand a reed: behold God in search of man­kind: hail our King! Day is breaking. After a stop in the morning chill, Jesus starts again for the place of the Skull. He goes freely towards His passion. On His shoulder a tree: following are a few women, for His disciples have abandoned Him.

The Choir of the Twelve has fled. They have spoken not a word in His behalf, they for whom He is giving His life. Lazarus, whom He brought back from the dead, is not there; the blind man sheds not a tear for Him who opened his eyes to the light; and the lame man who walks because of Him, runs not to follow Him. Only a bandit crucified at His side confesses Him and calls Him King. (St. Ephrem the Syrian)

We are at the place of meeting. There where tradition places the tomb of Adam and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, in the full breeze, between heaven and earth, in the midday sun hidden by the clouds, He is suspended on the tree of the Cross.

“Adam, where are you?” calls out Christ again on the Cross. I have come even here, seeking you. To find you, I have stretched out my hands on the Cross. With outstretch­ed hands, I turn towards the Father to give thanks for having found you, then I turn towards you to embrace you. I have not come to judge your sin, but to save you for the sake of my love. I have not come to curse your disobedience, but to bless you by my obedience. I will find your life, hidden in darkness and the shadow of death; I will have no rest until, descending even to the very depths of hell to seek you out, I have restored you to the heavens. (St. Germanos of Constantinople)

Thirst was consuming Him: My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Is that the cry of God seeking man, or the cry of wandering man?

All is accomplished, but all is not finished. He departs again, further yet, carried in the arms of men this time: Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, John. Mary and Magdelene follow. In silence, they place Him in a new tomb, and the earth covers Him with its warmth and its peace, as it welcomes the grain of wheat planted by the sower.

The Seed fertile with two natures is tearfully sown this day in the womb of the earth; when it sprouts, it will give joy to the world. (Holy Saturday Orthros)

In the tomb, by His death, the Son of God meets all those who before Him accom­plished that hard passage. He has come even there, to that opaque, cold place where had been swallowed up one by one all of mankind since Adam. In His turn, the Lord of Life plunges into the black waters of hell, just as on the day of His baptism He was immersed into the waters of the Jordan. There rests the lost sheep, There, as earth longs for the rain from heaven, Adam captive in Hades awaits the Savior of the world and the Giver of Life. (Romanos the Melodist)

At His passage, the waters begin to leap and billow like a spring. The river of the forgotten sings like a mountain torrent and baptizes to life the dead it had swallowed. Christ joyfully leads with Him towards the heavens all those who had hoped to see His day.

During this time, Mary His mother waited in faith and Mary Magdelene waited tear­fully at the tomb:

O Earth, open up and bring forth the Savior. (Is. 45:8)

Arise, O God, judge the earth, for You rule over all the nations (Ps. 81)

Let God arise and His enemies will scatter; let the just rejoice before the face of God, let them exalt and dance with joy. (Ps. 67)

The first day of the week, He arose like the sun on a clear dawn. Like the bride­groom coming from the tent rejoices, strong, to run his course, (Ps. 18) He joyfully greets the women bearing spices and the still-fearful disciples: Rejoice, Peace be with you! Mary, go tell my brothers that I return to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God… And before their eyes, He was borne up to the heavens. On Ascension Day, there was on the Mount of Olives more than was at Tabor and more than at Sinai. Heaven and earth are come together in the Feast, and from the cloud which envelops Christ flows the Spirit which makes every tongue in heaven, on earth, and under the earth proclaim: Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the light of this journey of Christ, the descent into Hades assumes its signi­ficance. God became man and set out in search of man, even submitting to death to meet him. Fulfillment of the Incarnation, the Descent into Hades by Christ is also the culmination of His work of salvation. God is with us even there: God is for us even there. In the midst of our worst distresses, our anguishings, our deaths, He has come to pitch His tent, not only to console us, but to save us, that is, to give to us heal­ing in its fullness, to give us the true life. Lazarus, go forth! Adam, go forth, come follow me and live!

Henceforth, we are no longer eternal prisoners of death, of our deaths (and they are legion). To all death, a resurrection; to all impasses, a solution; for in our midst is the risen Christ, who watches over us, cures us, leads us. There is no longer a darkness that the Son of God has not attacked and conquered.

Now hell has become heaven, Hades is filled with light … for the rising Sun, the Light from on high, has visited those who were seated in darkness and the shadow of death. (St. John Chrysostom)

The gates and bolts which held man captive are burst asunder. I have opened be­fore you a door that no one can close. (Rev.3:8)

Thus on Easter night we tirelessly sing, as we do for forty days afterwards: Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death, He has trampled upon death, and has given Life to those in the tombs.

Whatever the heaviness and murkiness of his own hells, each person can henceforth hear there the murmuring voice of the Christ of Easter saying to him: Peace be with you, arise and walk.

Our God is a God of deliverance

To the Lord our God is freedom from death (Ps. 6: 7, 21)

Dwellers in shadow and darkness

Captives of sorrow and chains

May they give thanks to the Lord for His loving kindness

for His marvels done for the sons of men

For He shattered the bronze portals

and demolished the iron gates (Ps. 106: 10 & 15, 16)