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What is the full meaning of Christ’s crucifixion on the cross, and His resurrection? Was it an atonement for our sins? A payment for our sins? Or was it something else far deeper? What was it that Jesus actually did, and why does it matter? For Orthodox Christians, the focus of Great and Holy Pascha (their word for Easter), the Feast of Feasts, is about far more than the empty tomb or some sense of payment, but about Life itself. “Christ is Risen!” we will greet each other, “Truly He is Risen” we reply. Christos Anesti! Alethos Anesti! And again and again we sing the Troparion:
Christ is Risen from the grave,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
“Trampling down death by death.” We hear that phrase again and again, and it is an old one. The emperor Justinian used it in his hymn, which we sing every Sunday.
Only begotten Son and Word of God,
Thou Who art immortal
And didst deign for our salvation
to become incarnate
of the Holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
without change becoming man,
and who was crucified O Christ God,
trampling down death by death;
Thou who art one of the Holy Trinity,
glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
What does this mean? Again and again, the hymns and canons of Holy Friday sing of what Christ wrought on the cross and through his death and burial. We sing how He carried on Himself the sins of the world, not as an atonement or blood sacrifice, but that as God, by taking on human flesh through His incarnation, and dying in the flesh, He would break the power of death itself and free from death all who had passed while awaiting His coming. This is the Orthodox understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection.
Satan, in seeing Jesus, God incarnate, having come into the world in human form, thought that by the death of Jesus he would defeat God and capture Him in his realm of death — Hades, or Hell, where the souls of all who had perished lay trapped and bound. Jesus upon his death did descend to Hades, but He instead came as the Lord of Glory.
“Hades, made ridiculous at seeing thee, O Deliverer of all, placed in a new tomb for the sake of all, trembled with fear. Its locks were shattered; its doors broken; the tombs were opened; and the dead awoke. Then Adam cried to thee with joy and gratitude, “Glory to thy condescension, O Lover of mankind.” (Great Vespers of Holy Friday)
There is an icon that is perhaps the most popular icon of Pascha in the Orthodox church. It is called The Harrowing of Hades. At its center, surrounded by light so bright it is often depicted as darkness, stands Christ triumphant in flowing robes of white. Beneath His feet are the shattered gates of Hell, with their locks and bars scattered and strewn about, and the bound figure of death pinned underneath. Jesus is grasping Adam and Eve, the first of all, and pulling them up from their tombs, while all around are the great prophets and kings of old. You can often see the prophet Daniel, or David and Solomon, or Isaiah, and others behind. John the Baptist, not long dead, patiently awaits Christ as well. Christ has kicked in the doors of death and come to rescue all. Before the empty tomb of Sunday, there was this.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body, and face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen! “O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is they victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
— Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom
This is heart of Pascha. Death has been trampled down by Jesus’s death, and hades is broken.
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!
For the Orthodox, last weekend was our Pascha.