Trampling Upon Death By Death

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD and by His death He has trampled upon Death and has given live to those who are in the tombs.

This hymn, the troparion of Pascha, is chanted repeatedly on Pascha and throughout the forty days until the feast of Christ’s ascension. Many of us know it by heart. Often, however, we have not plumbed the depth of its meaning, particularly as it applies to our lives.

Why Did Christ Die?

On the most basic level we can say that Christ died because humans die and He was fully human. By truly assuming all that is human apart from sin, the Word of God accepted all the weaknesses inherent in our human nature, from the indignities of birth and infancy to the final humiliation of death. Christ died because He was fully and completely human as well as divine.

But Christ did not simply die; by His death He defeated Death. The first and most obvious aspect of this victory is that He rose from the dead: Death could take Him because He was human; it could not hold Him because He was the Son of God. Christ rose from the dead because He was fully and completely divine as well as human.

Christ’s Death Takes Away Sin

The Scriptures specify a particular result of Christ’s victory over Death. Dying, they teach, He destroyed the power of sin over us. When St Paul summarized the Church’s belief about the Lord Jesus for the Corinthians the first thing he mentioned was that Christ died for our sins: “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

St Paul’s summary has been described as an early creed, putting together various aspects of the Christian message in a systematic way. To say that Christ died “for our sins” means that His death on the cross, where His blood would be poured out, would somehow achieve the overthrow of sin; not that people would cease sinning but that sin would no longer have the ultimate power over mankind.

This message is depicted graphically in the Byzantine icon of the resurrection – an image that may help us understand how our sins are affected by Christ’s death.

Our icon is based, not on the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb but on the following passages from the teaching of St Peter. In his first sermon after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost Peter quoted this verse of Psalm 16: “Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Ps 16:9-10) and applied it to Christ. The patriarch David, he wrote, being a prophet, “…spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31). We refer to this when we say in the Apostles’ Creed that “He descended into hell.”

Christ’s descent among the dead is, in fact, an invasion, bringing to the dead the imminent expectation of eternal life. In the first universal epistle of St Peter we read: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who formerly were disobedient…” (1 Peter 3:18-20). Christ’s presence proclaims the kingdom of God to the dead and defeats their captors, sin and death.

The icon depicts the power of Christ’s presence in the realm of the dead. Locks and chains, representing the power of sin and death over mankind, are shown broken on the ground. Christ is depicted taking the “formerly disobedient” Adam and Eve by the hand and leading them out of the pit to God. The Psalmist King David and other Old Testament personages are often depicted with them sharing in Christ’s victory over Death. Christ’s mission to the imprisoned spirits is often described in English as the “harrowing (despoiling) of hell.”

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!”

Paschal matins begins with a representation of the King of glory banging on the gates of Hades and leading mankind (all of us) into the kingdom of God, the Church. The assault on sin and death is successful and we are freed from their ultimate power.

Trampling Upon Death

We who are united to Christ in His death and resurrection through baptism are called to continue His defeat of sin and death in our own person, as the Scriptures make clear. “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:19-24)

Death is defeated when we allow Christ to take us by the hand and lead us along His way of not reacting to evil by copying it; rather to follow Christ’s way of forgiveness and trust in God even to death. Then our deeds as well as our words will proclaim that Christ is risen and that we are as well.

From a Homily for Holy Saturday
by St. Epiphanios of Cyprus (+403)

“For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

“See on my face the spit I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once stretched out your hand to a tree.

“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

“Rise. Let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see! I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”