Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jesus' Triumph over Death and Hell

This year on Holy Saturday I read the book Christ the Conqueror of Hell : The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Hilarion Alfeyev. The book is an extended meditation on the creedal affirmation that Christ "descended into Hades" from the perspective of Eastern Orthodox theology and liturgy. I was particularly struck by the portrayal in the poems of Ephrem the Syrian and Romanos the Melodist. In this excerpt from kontakion 38 by Romanos we overhear a dialogue between Hell and Satan.

"Three crosses Pilate fixed on Golgatha,
two for the thieves one for the Giver of Life,
whom Hell saw and said to those below,
'My ministers and powers,
who has fixed a nail in my heart?
A wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am being torn apart.
My insides are in pain, my belly in agony,
my senses make my spirit tremble,
and I am compelled to disgorge
Adam and Adam's race. Given me by a tree,
a tree is bringing them back
again to Paradise'.

When he heard this the cunning serpent
ran crawling and cried, 'What is it, Hell?
Why do you groan for no reason? Why produce these wailings?
This tree, at which you tremble,
I carpentered up there for Mary's Child.
I intimated it to the Jews for our advantage,
for it is a cross, to which I have nailed Christ,
wishing by a tree to do away with the second Adam.
So do not upset yourself. it will not plunder you.
Keep hold of those you have. Of those whom we rule,
not one escapes
again to Paradise.'

'Away with you, come to your senses, Beliar' cried Hell.
'Run, open your eyes and see
the root of the tree inside my soul.
It has gone down to my depths,
to draw up Adam like iron.
Elisha of old painted its image in prophecy
when he drew the axe head from the river.
With a light object the prophet dragged a heavy,
warning you and teaching you
that, by a tree, Adam is to be brought up
from wretchedness
again to Paradise.'


Suddenly Hell began to call out to the devil--
The eyeless to the sightless, the blind to the blind--
Look...the tree which you boast of has shaken the universe,
has convulsed the earth, hidden the sky,
rent the rocks together with the veil,
and raised up those in the graves....'

'Has the Nazarene's tree been strong enough to scare you?'
said the devil to Hell the destroyer,--
Have you been slain by a cross, you who slay all?'"

Consider also this poem by Ephrem.

"Blessed is Christ! He gave to us the dead, hope for life, and
consoled our race. Although now we are subject to decay,
we will be renewed.
Listen, you mortals, to the mystery of the resurrection
which is hidden now, but in the Last Days will be
revealed in the Holy Church.
Jesus a traveler in the realm of Death for three days,
liberated his captives, robbed his camp, and renewed our race.
Previously Death had prided himself and boasted, saying:
'Priests and Kings are enchained in my dwellings.'
But the glorious Warrior suddenly broke into the realm of
Death; as a thief his voice stole therein and put an end
to his glory.
The dead in Sheol perceived the fragrance of life and began
preaching to each other that their hopes come to
Death reigned over mortals from the beginning, until the
one Sovereign shone over and destroyed his pride.
His voice, like peals of mighty thunder, reached the dead
and heralded to them that they were liberated from

In all while the Orthodox picture of Christ's triumph over death and hell walks perilously close to universalism (at least to my Protestant tastes), in sermon, poem and song they paint a powerful picture of the triumphant Lord leading the captives free as he ascends from the depths of the earth. The power of the image is summed up in the repeated refrain sung in the Orthodox Easter liturgy. "Christ is risen from the dead/Trampling over death by death/And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

It's now a couple of weeks past Easter but Christ is still risen and Death is defeated and will be forever!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Apocryphal Endings

Once again, it takes forever for me to get the basic notifications up. Michael and I had a good time discussing Ecclesiasticus and friends over pie and my supper. For our final bit from the Apocrypha let's read 1 and 2 Maccabees and get the skinny on Hannukah. We can meet on Monday, December 20 to discuss.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Apocrypha Continued

Michael and I met on Oct. 11 to discuss Judith, Tobit, and the Wisdom of Solomon. I found the reading very interesting, especially the second half of the Wisdom of Solomon with its discussion of the miracles of the Exodus as blessings mirroring the plagues on the Egyptians. For example, clean water coming from a rock was a blessing that reflected the Nile turning to blood, a curse on the Egyptian water supply.

We will meet again on Monday, November 15 at the Libertyville Baker's Square at 7:30 p.m. to discuss Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, also known as the The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach or just Sirach, and the additions to Daniel: The Song of Azariah and The Song of the Three Jews (Daniel 3:24-90 in the Jerusalem Bible or the New American Bible), Susannah (Daniel 13), and Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Apocryphal Reading

In our readings so far we have encountered several references to apocryphal books. Both Athanasius and Augustine cited the books of Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom, for instance. While they are not considered canonical by many of the church fathers or most of the Protestant tradition, they have usually been considered helpful reading for Christians. Since most of us are not very familiar with these books I thought it would be a good time for us to try to dive in and get to know them a little better. So, over the next three weeks try to read Judith, Tobit, and The Wisdom of Solomon. We will meet to discuss them on Monday night, Oct. 11, at the Libertyville Baker's Square at 7:30. The texts can be found standard in the Jerusalem Bible and The New American Bible, in addition to the links above and are available on Amazon. I also have a couple of extra copies if anybody needs to borrow one.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Confession Time

Greetings all. A few of us met last Monday for good pie and even better discussion. We talked about the second half of Early Christian Writings (i.e. The Epistle of Polycarp through The Didache) and an number of other thoughts more or less tangentially related thereunto. We also decided that our next book would be Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. After the Bible, Confessions, which is Augustine's autobiography and the testimony of how he became a believer, is probably the best known and most widely read of all the early Christian writings. It's a great book and I'm looking forward to reading it again. It's longer than our previous selections but it's probably easier reading through the first three quarters. It is available to read online here or here. Of course it's available through Amazon and through libraries. If you're having trouble getting access to a copy I have a couple I'm willing to loan. Let's plan to meet next on Monday night, July 12 at 7:30 at the Libertyville Baker's Square. Try to read Books 1-5 ("books" more or less means "chapters" here) by then.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Meeting Monday Night

So here's our plan. We will meet tomorrow night (Monday, 5/24) at the Libertyville Baker's Square to discuss the Epistle of Clement and the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. Let Everett know if you're planning to be there.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Next Meeting and Book

Michael, Marcia, Andrew, and I met on Monday night to discuss Athanasius' On the Incarnation. We had a good time with some lively discussion. We agreed that for our next book we would dip back in time a couple of hundred years to read some of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. I'll post more information about the Apostolic Fathers this weekend. For the time being here's the book I passed around at the meeting Early Christian Writings on Amazon and in libraries. Also here's a different translation available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. There are a lot of different editions of the Apostolic Fathers floating around. Let me know if you're having trouble getting hold of one and I can lend you one of mine. We agreed to start by reading the Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians and the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch.

We plan to meet again in three weeks on Monday 5/24 at 7:30 p.m. at Baker's Square in Libertyville, unless anyone has a better suggestion for a meeting place. (Remember if making a suggestion that we don't want to move further south than that so as not to make things too hard on Andrew). For those who couldn't make it this time or who were unable to finish Athanasius in time we'll finish off any straggling Athanasius thoughts and discuss Clement and Ignatius.

Grace to you and peace in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.