Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Icon, Part 10: The Harrowing of Hades

 

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,
save us.

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.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor

    Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His presence. As smoke vanishes let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say in gladness: Hail most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord for thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ crucified on the, Who went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His venerable Cross for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me with our holy Lady, the Virgin Mother of God, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen

    (Prayer to the Venerable Cross)

    • #1
    • April 26, 2019, at 8:05 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    Question: Where is this referenced in Scripture?

    I find the idea of Jesus Christ invading Hell, kicking the door down, and rescuing the righteous dead to be awesome (in both the modern and old-school senses)

    • #2
    • April 26, 2019, at 11:02 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    Question: Where is this referenced in Scripture?

    You will not find a single reference to this in scripture, but this is the understanding of the earliest Christians as has been passed down for nearly 2000 years now: that Death itself is defeated. To get to why this is understood you have to see what is going on in several places, and to understand how death is understood.

    To start with, there is this from Matthew 27 (50-53):

    Jesus, when He had cried out again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom, and the earth quaked and the rocks rent. And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who slept arose, and came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the Holy City and appeared unto many.

    This is often a favorite passage that Bible critics like to cite, claiming that this is nonsense, and if there were revenants roaming about Jerusalem then surely some other accounts would survive. But that criticism is based on a false understanding. Time and again in the accounts of saints one reads of encounters with saints long asleep from their bodies, but present anyway, and visible to select faithful for purposes of their own. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, and though such saints may have fallen asleep, yet they are alive in Christ. What is described in Matthew is very much the same.

    But there’s more…

    • #3
    • April 27, 2019, at 12:34 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    In terms of other scriptural support:

    1 Peter 4: 5-6

    5 but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.

    Ephesians 4: 7-10

    But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said,

    “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
    he gave gifts to his people.”

    9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended[a] into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

    There are others besides, but these are among the most popular.

    • #4
    • April 27, 2019, at 12:38 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    And it needs to be borne in mind that this was an understanding of even very early Christians. There is a decent Wikipedia article that covers a lot of the history of it, with extant sermons and letters as early as the 100s. There is also the matter of the Apostles’ Creed, whose dating is a bit uncertain but definitely precedes the Nicene Creed. Many Protestant churches use this creed to this day (The Catholic and Orthodox use it too, but not as often as the Nicene):

    I believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.
    I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
    who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
    born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, died, and was buried;
    he descended to the dead. (This is often translated as “Hell” or “Hades”)
    On the third day he rose again;
    he ascended into heaven,
    he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
    and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting. Amen.

    So this has a long history.

    • #5
    • April 27, 2019, at 12:47 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. John Park Member

    In Dante’s Inferno, the entrance to Hell has been broken open.

    • #6
    • April 29, 2019, at 5:58 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    John Park (View Comment):

    In Dante’s Inferno, the entrance to Hell has been broken open.

    Yes, it’s there too. Was going to try to look it up and quote it here, but this weekend was rather busy.

    • #7
    • April 29, 2019, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. John Park Member

    @skipsul I’ll try to find it tonight when I’m home with a copy of the Divine Comedy.

    • #8
    • April 29, 2019, at 10:35 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Boss Mongo Member

    Thanks, Skip. Sorry it took me so long to get to this. I knew I’d want to read your post when I had some quiet time and could give it the deep read I knew it would deserve.

    I wasn’t wrong.

    • #9
    • May 4, 2019, at 9:40 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    Thank you for the insight, @skipsul

    Now I just need to get Red or Theocracy to do a song on it. If there is a concept for epic Christian metal / rock, this is it.

    • #10
    • May 4, 2019, at 1:56 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Many Protestant churches use this creed to this day (The Catholic and Orthodox use it too, but not as often as the Nicene)

    Catholics mostly use the Nicene at Mass, but we do say the Apostles’ Creed with every rosary so it’s in pretty heavy rotation was well.

    • #11
    • May 5, 2019, at 2:12 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul: For the Orthodox, last weekend was our Pascha.

    I wish we could agree on common dates for Pascha/Easter, it would be a great symbol of Christian unity. I don’t really care what they are, the Orthodox dates would be fine with me. Perhaps we could both adopt the Jewish system for determining the date of Passover as a compromise?

    • #12
    • May 5, 2019, at 2:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul: For the Orthodox, last weekend was our Pascha.

    I wish we could agree on common dates for Pascha/Easter, it would be a great symbol of Christian unity. I don’t really care what they are, the Orthodox dates would be fine with me. Perhaps we could both adopt the Jewish system for determining the date of Passover as a compromise?

    That would be tough as Nicea one picked the date to be independent of Passover, and we all (east and west) hold to that. The date difference is due to Julian vs Gregorian dating, but the calculations are the same: first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. As the Equinox is set on 3/21, the difference comes down to when 3/21 is, which is now 13 days later on Julian.

    There was an early 20th century council that attempted to fix this, but the Russian Revolution rather scrambled things.

    • #13
    • May 5, 2019, at 3:44 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

     

    Also, there is this version….

     

    • #14
    • May 5, 2019, at 3:46 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    That would be tough as Nicea one picked the date to be independent of Passover, and we all (east and west) hold to that. The date difference is due to Julian vs Gregorian dating, but the calculations are the same: first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. As the Equinox is set on 3/21, the difference comes down to when 3/21 is, which is now 13 days later on Julian.

    To be clear, I meant that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover, not the same day. I thought the rationale behind “the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox” is because that is the date of Passover using the Jewish lunar calendar.

    The differences in computing this seem rather arbitrary and unimportant to me, why can’t we all just use the astronomical Vernal Equinox rather than a fixed date on a (disputed) calendar?

    • #15
    • May 5, 2019, at 4:39 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    That would be tough as Nicea one picked the date to be independent of Passover, and we all (east and west) hold to that. The date difference is due to Julian vs Gregorian dating, but the calculations are the same: first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. As the Equinox is set on 3/21, the difference comes down to when 3/21 is, which is now 13 days later on Julian.

    To be clear, I meant that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover, not the same day. I thought the rationale behind “the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox” is because that is the date of Passover using the Jewish lunar calendar.

    The differences in computing this seem rather arbitrary and unimportant to me, why can’t we all just use the astronomical Vernal Equinox rather than a fixed date on a (disputed) calendar?

    You’d think it would be easy to change on the one hand, but as so much of the liturgical year hangs off of Pascha, and as many miracles are associated with Pascha, there is a tremendous reluctance to change it.

    Have you heard of the Holy Fire?

    Every Holy Saturday, the Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb in the Holy Sepulchre. The tomb is inspected beforehand, as is the Patriarch, so make sure he’s carrying no matches or lighters, and he enters carrying two large candle bundles. Then he begins to pray. At some point late in the evening, the candles spontaneously light with a bright flame. Thousands of the faithful waiting around the tomb are carrying candles, and sometimes theirs have been seen lighting too. The patriarch emerges waving this flame and then everyone present lights their candles or lanterns from this fire, and the lanterns carrying this fire are flown around the world.

    And that’s not even the oddest part: for some time after the flame starts, it does not burn.

    • #16
    • May 5, 2019, at 9:50 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You’d think it would be easy to change on the one hand, but as so much of the liturgical year hangs off of Pascha

    But it moves around every year anyway. I can understand resistance to changing a holiday with a fixed date, for instance I’d be very reluctant to agree to celebrate Christmas on January 7th. If you told me next year we should move Easter to April 19th, I’d say sure, sounds fine to me, without checking a calendar I don’t even know if that’s the “right” day or not.

    • #17
    • May 5, 2019, at 10:42 PM PDT
    • Like
  18. Lucy Kline Member

    THANK YOU for bringing Orthodoxy to light on the feed! All my life I have encountered people who have no idea about Orthodox Christianity, so I appreciate your posts. And, I learn a ton and see iconography I haven’t seen before. Kudos! Christos Anesti!

    • #18
    • May 6, 2019, at 5:57 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You’d think it would be easy to change on the one hand, but as so much of the liturgical year hangs off of Pascha

    But it moves around every year anyway. I can understand resistance to changing a holiday with a fixed date, for instance I’d be very reluctant to agree to celebrate Christmas on January 7th. If you told me next year we should move Easter to April 19th, I’d say sure, sounds fine to me, without checking a calendar I don’t even know if that’s the “right” day or not.

    It is an interesting question for certain. But as the date calculation was settled in 325 as one of the key questions of the first council of Nicaea, getting it recalculated in any way is above your authority or mine. It would take a truly ecumenical council between all of the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Latin churches to change it. I think it telling that as controversial as the Orthodox shift between Julian and Reformed-Julian has been, and that the Reformed calendar still left Pascha exactly where it has been*, I’m guessing it’s not going to be moved. Mind you, a Labour-Party MP in the UK a few years ago proposed fixing the Easter Bank Holliday (not joking here) to the second weekend in April – you can imagine how well that went over.

    *Some Orthodox jurisdictions have adopted the Reformed calendar, some have not, so throughout the year you’ll see that many observe Christmas on 12/25 on the Gregorian calendar, while others (particularly the Russian churches) observe Christmas on 1/7 on the Gregorian calendar, though it is still 12/25 on the Julian. The exception to this is Pascha, which is kept in lockstep for both calendars so that all Orthodox can celebrate Pascha together, and this is the key difference between Gregorian and Reformed-Julian. 

    • #19
    • May 6, 2019, at 6:31 AM PDT
    • Like
  20. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lucy Kline (View Comment):

    THANK YOU for bringing Orthodoxy to light on the feed! All my life I have encountered people who have no idea about Orthodox Christianity, so I appreciate your posts. And, I learn a ton and see iconography I haven’t seen before. Kudos! Christos Anesti!

    Alithos Anesti!

    Thank you for the kind words. I myself am deeply indebted in no small part to several other Orthodox and Orthodox-sympathetic Ricochet members over the years who themselves let me know how very-much alive and active it is here in the US. I had developed an interest in Orthodoxy over 20 years ago, but that was the dawn of the internet so resources were scarce unless you knew someone who knew someone (and where I was at the time, I knew nobody). That rekindled over the last few years for reasons I’ve mentioned in other essays and comments. Iconography was something in particular that had fascinated me early on, and was one of my own “hooks” (if you’ll pardon the expression) into understanding it all. Writing this series of essays has been as much for my own education as it has been for sharing Orthodoxy with others.

    • #20
    • May 6, 2019, at 6:43 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m way behind in reading, so finally only got to this today, but @omegapaladin I think Fr. Stephen De Young’s essay on the subject is a lot better and more thorough than anything else I’ve seen so far (our own @saintaugustine is quite the fan of his essays too).

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/wholecounsel/2019/04/25/lift-up-your-heads-o-ye-gates-psalm-24-and-the-harrowing-of-hades/

    Especially this section near the end:

    Within the Baal cycle, there is a critical moment in Baal’s ascent to power. Baal has begun fomenting his rebellion among the gods and this includes trading missives with Yam and Nahar. As the conflict heads toward inevitable violence, messengers (lit. angels) arrive from Yam and Nahar to tell Baal and his minions to submit. As soon as they arrive, the other gods, sitting upon their thrones in the council, literally bend down and put their heads between their legs in submission. This causes Baal to give an impassioned motivational speech. The refrain within Baal’s speech is, “Lift up your heads, O you gods!” After the conclusion of this rousing speech, Baal proceeds to murder the messengers and go out to battle and kill Yam and Nahar (Baal, I.II.24-29).

    In Psalm 24, as Yahweh’s assault upon the gates of Baal’s palace in the underworld begins, it begins with these words of Baal being used against him in mockery (v. 7, 9). These words which the devil claims he spoke as he began his rebellion are now thrown back in his face as Yahweh comes to take from him even that little power, that of death, which remains to him in the rescue of his righteous ones. Yahweh strong and might, Yahweh mighty in battle, Yahweh of military hosts has come to bring salvation to his righteous ones, to destroy the gates of Baal’s palace and take them to dwell with him upon his holy mountain of assembly.

    Christianity has always seen the assault envisioned by Psalm 24 as having taken place in the death and resurrection of Christ. Among many of the Fathers, it is seen as the very reason for the incarnation. The Son of God became man so that he could die. He died so that he could be swallowed up by death as was Jonah and emerge victorious with the righteous dead from the whole human race. The harrowing of Hades is described in scripture (eg. Matt 12:29; Mark 3:27). It is depicted in iconography. It is a constant theme of the hymnography of the resurrection. 

    • #21
    • May 15, 2019, at 8:53 AM PDT
    • 2 likes

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