Melkite Greek Catholic Church
THERE ARE A NUMBER of sacred images popular in the West which are considered inappropriate or uncanonical in the East. This means that their depictions are actually misrepresentations of the one they represent. The poplar depiction of the Holy Trinity as an older man, a younger man and a dove is one such inappropriate image. The reason this image, copied in many 19th century icons, is considered uncanonical is because God the Father never became a man and the Holy Spirit never became a bird! Mixing these symbolic representations with the canonical and true depiction of the Word of God incarnate as Jesus is confusing at best.

Another uncanonical representation often presented as an icon shows the risen Christ emerging from the tomb, often carrying a banner or standard. This is considered inappropriate because no one actually saw Christ rise from the dead. The Gospels do not present us with any narrative of Jesus’ resurrection. They simply speak of the apostles and the myrrh-bearers hearing the angelic proclamation that Jesus had risen. This is why canonical Byzantine iconography depicts either the empty tomb or the symbolic representation of Christ leading mankind to Paradise.

The Tomb in the Scriptures

St Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the Lord Jesus was buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea: “Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed” (Matthew 27:57-60). We learn from Mark 15:43 that this Joseph was not only well-to-do, but also a leading Jew, a member of the Sanhedrin. John adds that he was a disciple of Jesus, “but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the requirement to bury the dead before sunset was so important that even executed criminals would be buried, if only temporarily, while the Roman practice was that their bodies would be left exposed to the elements.

John also tells us that Joseph’s tomb was near the place where Jesus was crucified, and therefore outside the city of Jerusalem. “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby” (John 19:41, 42). At the time, most Jews in the area were still buried in caves hollowed out for the purpose or dug out of the nearby rock.

According to John, Joseph was accompanied by the Pharisee Nicodemus, a member of the ruling class. “And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:39, 40).

The Tomb of Jesus Today

The burial place of the Lord was not adorned outwardly in any way, but its location was firmly fixed in the hearts of believers. It became such a place of devotion that the Roman Emperor Hadrian had a temple built to the goddess Venus over the spot to affirm the superiority of the Roman state religion. According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, “Certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove this sacred cave entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able effectually to obscure the truth. Accordingly, they brought a quantity of earth from a distance with much labor, and covered the entire spot; then, having raised this to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound. Then, as though their purpose had been effectually accomplished, they prepare on this foundation a truly dreadful sepulcher of souls, by building a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols to the impure spirit whom they call Venus, and offering detestable oblations therein on profane and accursed altars. For they supposed that their object could not otherwise be fully attained, than by thus burying the sacred cave beneath these foul pollutions” (Life of Constantine, III, XXVI).

Under Constantine, Christianity was freed from persecution and, later, obtained a protected status. Constantine had the temple to Venus destroyed and replaced it with a church in ad 335. Its dedication is celebrated in our liturgy on September 13 each year. Known in the West as the Holy Sepulchre, its authentic name is the Anastasis, the Church of the Resurrection.

This church was enlarged, damaged, repaired and destroyed again several times during the following centuries. The three main components – the basilica, the chapel of the crucifixion at Golgotha and the tomb – were enclosed in the single structure we have today.

The tomb itself was a cavern “hewn out of the rock,” as we read in Matthew 27:59. Constantine’s builders isolated the tomb by removing the rockface around it. It was enclosed in a rotunda in the year 380. In 2016 restoration work began on the tomb-chapel. Marble cladding which protected the shelf or burial bed on which the Lord’s body had been laid, was removed, exposing the original limestone shelf. After some 60 hours of studying and documenting the site, archeologists replaced the cladding, reasonably certain that this was indeed the burial place of Jesus.

The Tomb Is Empty!

While archeologists can testify to the antiquity of the tomb, only faith can assent to the Gospels’ essential affirmation: the tomb is empty, Christ is risen! This was the heart of the Gospel message of Christ to the world. Perhaps the first recorded proclamation of the resurrection is that of St Peter told in the Acts of the Apostles: “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. … Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:23, 24,36).

In the Byzantine Churches of the Mediterranean, both Catholic and Orthodox, it is customary to display the emptiness of the tomb and the powerlessness of death by means of the Red Eggs, blessed at the end of the Paschal Liturgy. Participants exchange the Paschal greeting (Christ is risen! – Indeed, He is risen!”), cracking each other’s eggs. The broken shell, died red in remembrance of the blood of Christ, becomes an image of the empty tomb, powerless to contain the One who was confined in it. As we sing in the resurrection troparion on many Sundays, “Death is despoiled. Christ God is risen, bestowing on the world great mercy!”
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 Hajme 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.
“CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!” This greeting, exchanged throughout this season by Eastern Christians, is one of the hallmarks of our paschal feast. Although it is not used in the West, the faith it expresses is at the heart of every Christian community’s belief in every historic tradition. Even before our written Gospels were compiled, faith in the resurrection was at the heart of the Christian message. As St Paul says, this teaching had been passed on to him by the first believers: “For 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, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that, He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Corithians 15:3-8). Christ’s resurrection was not merely accepted by the first Christians; it was recognized as the cornerstone of their faith. St Paul continues: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith also is empty” (vv. 13-14). The Christian faith would be empty if Christ were not risen. He might be an inspiring religious leader, but He would still be a failed one. His teachings might be accepted by some people but that in itself would not change our world. As Pope Benedict XVI of Rome noted, “In other words, we would be alone. Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world.” What is new in Christ’s resurrection is that His humanity is fully transformed be the power of God. On one hand the risen Christ is not an incorporeal being; He was not reborn as a spirit without a body. Nor is He depicted as a heavenly being, radiant with glory. On the other hand, He was not simply returned to the life which He had before the crucifixion. The Gospels show us a risen Christ with a true human body, but one which has in some way been transformed. To quote Pope Benedict once more, the risen Christ is shown to have “an entirely new form of life,” “a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it – a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence…” This life is open to those who live in Him since He is merely the “first-fruits” of a crop which includes us: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. … For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v.20-23).

The Resurrection Gospels

The four canonical Gospels contain a number of narratives on the resurrection. They are roughly divided into two groups. In the first we are told of the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalen, the other women and by the apostles Peter and John. The stone is rolled back from the entrance, the tomb is empty apart from the cloths in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped. The women are told by an angel (angels) that Jesus is not here – He is risen. In the second group the risen Christ appears to His disciples in a variety of settings. Some of these appearances are in or around Jerusalem (the upper room, the road to Emmaus). Others are in Galilee where some disciples encounter Jesus by the lake as they are fishing, and finally “on the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them” (Matthew 28:16). Commentators have noted that the stories describing Christ’s appearances in Jerusalem center on the inner life of the Church: the explanation of the Scriptures, the breaking of bread, the forgiving of sins, and table fellowship. The Galilee appearances are focused on the mission of the apostles to the world: proclaiming the Gospel, baptizing and teaching all nations. In both cases Christ’s disciples are offered hope and encouragement: by the promises that Christ is ever with them (Matthew 28:19) and that they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). In the Byzantine Churches one of these eleven resurrection narratives is read every Sunday at orthros/matins. On Pascha itself the second resurrection Gospel (Mark 16:1-8) is read at orthros before the closed door of the church, in the practice of the “southern” churches. Curiously there is no Gospel read at the Resurrection Matins in the Slavic Churches.

The Third Resurrection Gospel

One of the resurrection narratives merits some attention here. The third, Mk 16:9-20, is not found in many Greek manuscripts before the fifth century. It is also missing in some Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian translations. However early Christian writers of the second century such as St Justin the Philosopher, Tatian and St Hippolytus of Rome cited elements of this passage as Scripture in their works, indicating that it was known in at least some places as integral to the Gospel. The passage has been part of the Byzantine lectionary since its formation.

Paschal or Agape Vespers (al-Baouth)

The Ninth Resurrection Gospel – or at least part of it - is read in a unique way at vespers on the evening of Pascha. The passage, Jn 20:19-25, tells of Christ’s appearance to His disciples “the same day at evening, being the first day of the week” (v.19). And so this selection is read at the same time as the events it describes. Thomas, who was not present when Christ appeared, did not believe the others and uttered rashly, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (v.25). The reading stops here to be picked up next Sunday when the end of the story (vv. 26-29) took place. In the southern Byzantine Churches this passage is read in several languages, sometimes in as many languages as there are people able to read them. In some parishes the readers are stationed all around the church turning the nave into a world being evangelized by the apostles. The reading is followed by a procession which, whenever possible, goes outside the church through the neighborhood and into the cemetery while the Paschalia (stichera of Pascha) are chanted. Both the reading and the procession represent how the Church has carried out the apostolic commission to preach the Gospel to all nations. In Slavic Churches this reading takes place at the Divine Liturgy instead. In some places the Gospel is read in many languages at both the Liturgy and at Paschal vespers. In some parishes the procession and/or prayer in the cemetery is postponed until after the Liturgy on Bright Monday.
Now that we have seen the resurrection of Christ, let us adore the all-holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless one. We bow in worship before Your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify Your resurrection; for You are our God and we have no other. We magnify Your name. All you faithful, come, let us adore the holy resurrection of Christ for, behold, through the cross joy has come to the world. Let us always bless the Lord, let us sing His resurrection for by enduring for us the pain of the cross He has crushed death through His death.
Oikos of Pascha
“WHAT’S IN A NAME?” This question, which Shakespeare put in the mouth of Juliet, has become something of a cliché ever since. Nevertheless, it is certainly a valid question when we look at our name for the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection. In AD 725 St Bede the Venerable, an English monk and scholar, addressed this question in his work, The Reckoning of Time. He tells us that the word “Easter” was the Old English term for the month which we call April and which, in turn “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month." In most cultures with a Christian heritage the feast is called Pascha, a Greek term which itself was a transliteration of the Hebrew Pesach. While the term Easter has pagan associations, the term Pascha is rooted in the New Testament and, ultimately, the Old Testament understanding of God’s work among us.

Pesach: The Old Testament Passover

The term Pesach refers to both the determining event in Jewish history and the festival which celebrates it. Sometime in the second millennium bc Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, was sold into slavery as a teenager by his own half-brothers (cf., Genesis 37). Joseph was brought to Egypt and bought by Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh’s guard. “The Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2) and he eventually became the chief of Potiphar’s household. After a series of reversals, Joseph came to the attention of Pharaoh himself by correctly interpreting the king’s dreams and averting a famine. In gratitude Pharaoh made Joseph overseer over his kingdom: “You shall be over my house and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you” (Genesis 41:40). Joseph eventually brought his entire tribe to Egypt (cf., Genesis 42-50) and they prospered there for several generations. Then “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and saw his tribe as a threat to Egypt. This began their period of slavery in Egypt which culminated with the call of Moses to deliver his people from Egypt in the thirteenth century bc (cf. Exodus 1-11). According to the Book of Exodus, “Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.  And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years—on that very same day—it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41). In commemoration of their deliverance the first Passover was celebrated: “It is a night of solemn observance to the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt. This is that night of the Lord, a solemn observance for all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Exodus 12:42). The Passover festival recalls how the children of Israel “passed over” from slavery to freedom. The principal observance of the Jewish Passover to this day is the Seder, the ritual meal which begins the week-long festival. Through story, song and ritual foods such as the matzoh (unleavened bread) and the bitter herbs this meal recalls the hardships the Israelites endured during the exodus as well as the protecting presence of God which delivered them. As long as the Jerusalem temple stood, the centerpiece of this meal was the Passover lamb, sacrificed in the temple and then consumed at the Seder. Ever since the temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Passover sacrifice has been symbolized by a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate.

Christ Our Passover

A few years after the death and resurrection of Christ St Paul would write from Ephesus to the Christians of Corinth, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Paul, and perhaps others before him, saw Christ as the new Passover, the ultimate Passover delivering not one tribe but all mankind from slavery; and not from slavery to an earthly tyrant but from a universal tormentor: the power of sin and death. We find this Passover image echoed in the First Epistle of St Peter to the Christians of Asia Minor, which contrasts Christ’s unique sacrifice of Himself with the material sacrifices that people offer: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19), qualities required in lambs destined for sacrifice at Passover. The Gospels all express Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the Jewish Passover. They all depict the Lord Jesus and His disciples going to Jerusalem for this festival. The Synoptic Gospels (Mattew, Mark and Luke) depict their meal in the “upper room” as the Passover Seder. This emphasizes the Eucharist as the new Seder, the meal that connects us to the Mystical Supper and to Christ’s Passover to eternal life. The Gospel of John, however, says that Jesus’ death occurred before the Passover. “Now it was the Preparation Day for the Passover…” (John 19:13), when Christ was sentenced to death and taken to be crucified. He hung on the cross until the ninth hour. “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice… and breathed His last” (Mark 15:33-37). Thus, in the imagery of St John, Christ dies in the middle of the afternoon before the Seder, at precisely the time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. The implication is clear: Christ is the Passover Lamb whose death nourishes all mankind. This description of Christ as our Passover recalls the witness of John the Baptist when Jesus approached him at the Jordan, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This Lamb reappears in the Book of Revelation at the center of the author’s heavenly vision: “And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain... Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne… saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Revelation 5:6, 11).
The Paschal Stichera

The following hymns are chanted at Orthros and Vespers on Pascha, throughout Bright Week and every Sunday during the Paschal season, glorifying Christ as our Passover.

Our Passover Christ the Redeemer is revealed to us today as a noble Passover. He is the new and holy Passover, a mystical Passover, a blameless Passover, a glorious Passover, a Passover for the faithful, a Passover that opens for us the gates of Paradise, a Passover that sanctifies all believers. A glorious Passover has shone upon us, a Passover of the Lord, a Passover perfectly honorable! Let us then embrace one another with joy! O what a Passover, delivering from sorrow, for Christ – coming out of the tomb as from a nuptial chamber – fills the women with joy by telling them to bring this happy news to the disciples. Have a good Pascha!

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.”
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 or 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. In the Middle Eastern Patriarchates this psalm is recited as the Paschal procession stands in darkness before the doors of the church. The priest outside and a “Satan,” inside recreate this dialogue:
Lift up your gates, you princes; and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.

Who is this King of Glory?

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.

Who is this King of Glory?
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 have 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.
CHRIST IS RISEN! Most of us are familiar with the Catechetical Homily of St. John Chrysostom which is appointed to be read during the celebration of Pascha. Other patristic texts on the resurrection are less well known but make for timely reading during Bright Week. Indeed He is risen! “We should understand, beloved, that the paschal mystery is at once old and new, transitory and eternal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal. “In terms of the Law it is old, in terms of the Word it is new. In its figure it is passing, in its grace it is eternal. It is corruptible in the sacrifice of the lamb, incorruptible in the eternal life of the Lord. It is mortal in His burial in the earth, immortal in His resurrection from the dead. “The Law indeed is old, but the Word is new. The type is transitory, but grace is eternal. The lamb was corruptible, but the Lord is incorruptible. He was slain as a lamb; He rose again as God. He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, yet He was not a sheep. He was silent as a lamb, yet He was not a lamb. The type has passed away; the reality has come. “The lamb gives place to God, the sheep gives place to a man, and the man is Christ, who fills the whole of creation. The sacrifice of the lamb, the celebration of the Passover, and the prescriptions of the Law have all been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Under the old Law, and still more under the new dispensation, everything pointed toward Him. “Both the Law and the Word came forth from Zion and Jerusalem, but now the Law has given place to the Word, the old to the new. The commandment has become grace, the type a reality. The lamb has become a Son, the sheep a man, and man, God. “The Lord, though He was God, became man. He suffered for the sake of those who suffer, He was bound for those in bonds, condemned for the guilty, buried for those who lie in the grave; but He rose from the dead, and cried aloud: ‘Who will contend with me? Let him confront me. I have freed the condemned, brought the dead back to life, raised men from their graves. Who has anything to say against me? I, he said, am the Christ; I have destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.’ “Come, then, all you nations of men, receive forgiveness for the sins that defile you. I am your forgiveness. I am the Passover that brings salvation. I am the lamb who was immolated for you. I am your ransom, your life, your resurrection, your light; I am your salvation and your king. I will bring you to the heights of heaven. With my own right hand I will raise you up, and I will show you the eternal Father.” (Paschal Homily of Meliton of Sardis, + c.180)

Pierced by God’s Hook

“As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that… if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, c. 335-394, The Great Catechetical Oration 22-24)

A Mousetrap for the Devil

“The devil was conquered by his own trophy of victory. The devil jumped for joy, when he seduced the first man and cast him down to death. By seducing the first man, he slew him; by slaying the last man, he lost the first from his snare. The victory of our Lord Jesus Christ came when He rose, and ascended into heaven; then was fulfilled what you have heard when the Apocalypse was being read, ‘The Lion of the tribe of Judah has won the day’ (Revelation 5:5). . . . The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap. He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death’s commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, c. 354-430, Sermon 261)

Foiled by His Own Malice

“And in order that He might set the human race free from the bonds of deadly transgression, He hid the power of His majesty from the raging devil, and opposed him with our frail and humble nature. For if the cruel and proud foe could have known the counsel of God’s mercy, he would have aimed at soothing the Jews’ minds into gentleness rather than at firing them with unrighteous hatred, lest he should lose the thraldom of all his captives in assailing the liberty of One who owed him nothing. Thus he was foiled by his own malice: he inflicted a punishment on the Son of God, which was turned to the healing of all the sons of men. He shed righteous Blood, which became the ransom and the drink for the world’s atonement. “The Lord undertook that which He chose according to the purpose of His own will. He permitted madmen to lay their wicked hands upon Him: hands which, in ministering to their own doom, were of service to the Redeemer’s work. And yet, so great was His loving compassion for even His murderers, that He prayed to the Father on the cross, and begged not for His own vengeance but for their forgiveness, saying, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). And such was the power of that prayer, that the hearts of many of those who had said, His blood be on us and on our sons (Matthew 27:25), were turned to penitence by the Apostle Peter’s preaching, and on one day there were baptized about 3,000 Jews: and they all were of one heart and of one soul (Acts 4:32), being ready now to die for Him, whose crucifixion they had demanded.” (Pope St. Leo the Great, c. 400-461, Sermon 62)

Redeeming His Own

“A certain person has interpreted this passage (1 Peter 3:18-20) as follows, that the saints resting in the lower world longed for that consolation about which the Lord say to His Apostles, Many prophets and righteous persons have longed to see what you see and did not see it and to hear what you hear and did not hear it (Matthew 13:17), about which the psalmist also says, My eyes have failed at your message, saying, ‘When will you comfort me,’ (Psalms 119 [118]:82) and that this consolation and encouragement was preached by the Lord when He went down into the lower world even to those who were in prison and were once in the days of Noah unbelievers and lived carnally. He may have said this. But the Catholic faith holds that when the Lord went down into the lower world and brought His own from there, it was the faithful alone and not unbelievers whom He took with Him to the heavenly kingdom… (The Venerable Bede, c. 673-735, Commentary on 1 Peter)

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