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!

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