Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high.
(Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 27-28)
When He had made purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the Name He has obtained is more excellent than theirs.
He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the Blood of His Cross.
But in fact Christ has been raised from dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
I Corinthians 15: 20-21
I intentionally use more than one Bible verse for many of these reflections to make the point that everything we do in the Orthodox Church, especially the Divine Liturgy, is closely related to Scripture. While the initial ritual of the Eucharist is given in very rudimentary fashion by Jesus at the Last Supper, the elaborate Divine Liturgy that has evolved takes most of its elements, including the words of its prayers, directly from Scripture. As we continue on in this prayer of the Anaphora, where St. Basil has beautifully written about the entire history of salvation, we now arrive at the most significant part of that history, the death and Resurrection of Christ.
Having done all of His earthly ministry, showing us the precepts of salvation and inviting all of us to be His chosen people, it was time to remit the debt of sin, death, that we all owed. He would pay that remittance with His own life. Death was the great captor, and as the prayer points out, we were the captives, sold to death by our sins. The only way to buy our way out of captivity was to pay that price of death, and Jesus paid that for us, by allowing Himself to be crucified.
After He died on the cross, He went to Hades, the place where all the dead were confined. And He broke the bonds of death, resurrecting with Him all those who had died. The Orthodox icon of the Resurrection shows Christ, not rocketing forth from the tomb, but in Hades, giving life to those in the tombs. We can see Adam and Eve, and Christ is grabbing them by their wrists, raising them with Him. Other Old Testament figures are easily recognized in the icon, such as John the Baptist, Moses, David and others. On the day that Christ was resting in the grave, He was actually not resting at all. He was in Hades, preaching the good news to those held captive there and for those who believed, He raised them up with Himself.
Two beautiful hymns from the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday morning recount the groaning of Hades as Christ descended into Hades and destroyed his power over the souls he held captive:
Today Hades cried out groaning: “Would that I had not received the One born of Mary; for He came upon me and loosed my power. He shattered the gates of brass; the souls, which I held captive of old, as God He raised up.” Glory O Lord to Your Cross and Your Resurrection.
Today Hades cried out, groaning: “My authority is dissolved; I received a mortal, as one of the mortals; but this One, I am powerless to contain; with Him I lose all those over which I had rules. For ages I had held the dead, but behold, He raises up all.” Glory O Lord, to Your Cross and Resurrection
~Kekragaria, Vesperal Liturgy, Holy Saturday morning, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas
When Christ rose from the dead on the third day, He opened a path for all people to our own resurrection. He showed that it was possible for one to die, be resurrected and live again. As the prayer says, “it was not possible for the Author of Life” to be “dominated by corruption.” And likewise, those who believe in Christ will not be dominated by the corruption that is death, separation from God. We will all stop living physically on earth at some point, but there will be no separation from God, no estrangement from God. Before the Resurrection, those who were in Hades were separated from God. God was not, and is not, found in Hades. As Orthodox Christians, we believe in heaven and we also believe in hell (Hades). Those who believe in Jesus Christ, and whose lives reflect that belief, people who spend their lives loving God and serving their neighbor, these will pass through death to eternal life.
I often think of the ritual that the Orthodox do each year on Good Friday night, where the faithful are invited to pass under the Epitaphios, the icon of Christ laying in the tomb. I often think of this ritual as a rehearsal for what happens at the end of life. We stand on one side of the icon, representing our life now on earth. We pass under the icon, representing our passing from this life, as well as our judgment before His awesome throne. And we emerge on the other side of the icon, hopefully as we will emerge at the end of life, to a new life in His heavenly kingdom. And all of this is made possible because Christ died, and defeated death by His rising from the dead.
Having risen from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven, and took His original place at the right hand of the Father. This is where He waits for us. We spoke before about the need to balance the equation that had fallen out of balance when mankind fell away from God. With His death, Christ balanced the equation. What had happened on our side of it, death, had now happened on His side. He shows us on His side the path to heaven, which is a death in faith, followed by resurrection, ascension and sitting at the right hand of the Father. This is the destiny for all those who live and die with faith—resurrection, ascension into heaven, and a seat with Christ on the right side of the Father, forever.
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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