Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
As we remember the days of Christ’s final ordeal, the Church feels an oppressive silence at the death of her Lord, a silence that penetrates to the depths of the heart of every disciple—then and now—who stand wordless before the Cross. It is the silence after an execution, when everyone walks away numb, paralyzed, and uncertain of what to do with such heavy a sorrow. It is the silence of those who are ashamed of their inability to put their lives on the line to speak out on behalf of the Master.
Instead, they (we) run and hide from Him as cowards. It is an uneasy and disturbing silence created by abandonment and reflecting the multitude of times we have betrayed Him, turned our backs on Him, and hid from Him as if He couldn’t see us behind the seemingly impenetrable wall of our own sin and self-centeredness. In fact, it is the silence of Sheol, the Hebrew term used in Matthew’s Gospel for “the abode of the dead.”
It was there, in that place of silence, that countless dead waited—just waited for the final disposition of God, for His last move. It is this limbo-like place that becomes, for the Orthodox Church, proof of the compelling truth about Christ’s rising from the dead. The Apostles’ Creed (the most ancient creedal statement) tells us that “…He descended into hell (Sheol/Hades) and on the third day rose again from the dead.”
The Resurrection icons of the Orthodox East never depict Jesus coming out of a tomb as Western images recall. The Church’s icon depicts Him straddling the gates over the black entrance of hell, having smashed open its doors, entered its deepest precincts, to call its inhabitants forth to freedom. Jesus rises from this abode of the dead, not from the cold stone burial place where they laid His body. In one of the oldest sermons on Holy Saturday, delivered by St. Melito of Sardis at the beginning of the 2nd century, we hear: “What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps, the earth was in terror and was still because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh and the underworld has trembled.”
Christ’s first action, the beginning of His Post-Resurrection ministry, if you will, was to go to those imprisoned in the abode of the dead. He rescues Adam and Eve and restores them to life as God originally intended. He liberates all who waited for him and binds Satan from “trapping” any more. In fact, Jesus rescues all in the abode of the dead, not simply those who believed in Him while they lived.
In the First Epistle of St. Peter, we read: “For Christ died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago.” (I Peter 3:18-20)
In commenting on this passage, St. Clement of Alexandria emphasizes that there are righteous people among both those who have the true faith and those outside it. (from Stromateis)
Jesus’ “Harrowing of Hell” was the last phase of his descent (κατάβαση) and self-emptying (κένωση) that began in the womb of the Holy Theotokos at the angel’s Annunciation. The Risen Jesus reveals “God-of-the-Second-Chance.” Christ rose from Hades and brought with Him those who already experienced death. In the Resurrection, God moved beyond the revenge that justice demands to the mercy and compassion that Risen Life brings.
Christ is the face of God who is not yet done with man even in death, the God who stares pure evil in the face and says: No More! No more death! No more humiliation! No more captives! Behold, all are mine, all are risen, all are redeemed. This is the glory of the Resurrection and why the Church sings her “Alleluias!” God gives us a second chance! What lessons can we take from this Feast of Feasts?
Resurrection Can Happen In You
Jesus’ descent into Hades was not an isolated historic event. It happens today and it happens in you and me. St. Macarios of Egypt makes it clear: “When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that he descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul…So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depths of the heart’s hell, and there commands saying ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought me and which you hold by force.’
To our imprisoned hearts the Lord descends, to the fearful and confused heart, to those wallowing in shame or guilt, to the heart which lives in doubt, denial, discouragement, or despair, to those of heavy heart weighed down by loneliness, distracted by the world’s deceptive promises, anxious about their families, feeling the burden of illness, facing the end of their earthly days—Christ descends, as St. Makarios says, into “the heart’s hell” to free the one who seeks Him, yearns for Him, craves Him.
Christ will rise in you if you learn to seek Him. Is your life in a spiritual “seeking mode”? The Risen Lord speaks: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him.” (Revelation 2:20) Do you truly seek Jesus?
Resurrection Means Upheaval
The descent of Jesus into Hades and His Resurrection from that abode of the dead meant the total upheaval of death, of life and of living. To celebrate Holy Pascha, is to believe once more that God constantly breaks into our personal histories, challenging our “conventions,” those fixed ways of thinking and acting, the habits that can end up paralyzing us and slowly but surely make us indifferent to Christ Himself.
The Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr. John Anthony McGuckin writes: “To celebrate Pascha is to allow Jesus to triumph over the craven fear that so often assails us and tries to bury every kind of hope. The invitation is addressed to you and me to break out of our routines and to renew our lives, our decisions, and our existence.” Resurrection calls us to reorganize our lives around the priority of Jesus—He at the center, He our first priority, He our treasure. Do we want to live this Christ-centered life or do we simply prefer to continue standing speechless before the Cross? Isn’t it finally time to choose Jesus?
Resurrection Is A Verb
As the Resurrection of Christ is an introduction to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbors, to our physical world, we, like the Apostolic Church, must find ways to spread the good news of this Rising. The Resurrection of Jesus was not a private event, meant for our personal devotion and pious thoughts. It was meant for the creation of a new humanity where resentment and hostility are frozen forever. In the liturgical prayers at the end of Holy Week, we hear Hell cry out: “My power has been trampled on; the Shepherd has been crucified, and Adam He raised up. I have been deprived of those over whom I ruled; and all those I had the power to swallow, I have disgorged. He who was crucified has cleared the tombs. The dominion of Death is no more.”
You and I must find those in our families, among our friends, and in our society who still suffer, who are caught up in that great silence, whose empty souls need the holy balm of the Risen One. We must DO the Resurrection in our world, not simply remember it. We must lift up, as Christ did Adam and Eve, those who have given up hope, feel alienated and marginalized, still wander in the shadows looking for the Light. Resurrection is not so much a noun as a verb—meant to be done, to be spoken, to be lived, to be witnessed—to be made real!
The Christ of the Resurrection icon, standing on the bridge over darkness and emptiness, entering the heart of human longing and incompletion, brings into that place the mystery out of which His own life streams. There are people in your life who yearn for that second chance. Find them, and like the Risen Lord extend your hand and lift them out of whatever dark and lifeless place with which they struggle. Tell them there is another chance because “Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!”
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