Descended into hell

The meaning of Holy Saturday.






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Publication: The Christian Century
Author: Guroian, Vigen
Date published: March 23, 2010

I WAS IN ARMENIA. The electricity had gone off that evening. Kevork and I sat facing one another in darkness at the small kitchen table with a single candle flickering between us. I leaned toward Kevork in order to hear the story he was about to tell.

"Kevork, you don't have to put yourself through this," I said.

"No, Vigen," he answered. "It helps to tell others what happened."

On a sunny December morning in 1988, the earth shook so fiercely in Armenia that the high-rise apartment in which Kevork, his wife, Anahid, and his two children lived crumbled to the ground. Kevork and Anahid had gone to work before the quake struck. But ten-year-old Armen and his seven-yearold sister, Lillit, were preparing to leave for school when the floor fell from under them and they were thrust into a black pit, buried beneath ten stories of twisted metal and stone. On foot, Kevork raced back home from the school at which he taught. Frantically, he began pulling chunks of concrete out of the jagged mountain of wreckage until his hands bled. When he realized the futility of his efforts, Kevork ran across the ruined city to reach someone with the machinery to rescue his children from their dark Sheol. But for three dreadful days, Annen and LilJit remained wrapped in suffocating darkness, removed from the land of the living.

Through it all, Armen courageously encouraged his sister to keep hope. On the third day, the rescue team found the children. Two days later, Armen died in the hospital. His youthful body had been crushed from the waist down. Remarkably, Lillit survived, even though she had been pinned to the ground by a steel beam that lodged itself in her forehead.

"I have argued with God day and night!" Kevork exclaimed. "But God has not answered! Armen is gone! I will go on living my life in this sorrow, but I no longer worry about what God's purposes are or what he can do."

"Kevork," I pleaded. "You cannot mean that. Otherwise, why would you keep bringing this up?"

Mournfully, the heart-stricken father responded, "Vigen, my friend, what else is left for me?"

Kevork bowed his head.The ensuing silence thickened the surrounding night. Then he looked up and leaned toward me with his thin, sinewy arms, the arms of a man much older than his 45 years.

"Vigen," he asked quietly, "you have heard of the Hare Krishna religion? My nephew brought me a book that I want to show to you. There are drawings in it about the afterlife and the migrations of the soul. When I was a young man, we were taught in our atheism classes that Marxism is materialist and Christianity is spiritualist. If that is so, Vigen, explain to me what is the difference between what is said in this book and what the Bible teaches. Are not both religions spiritualist? I know that we Christians believe in resurrection, but help me to understand how this belief is different from what is shown by the pictures in this book."

"Kevork," I asked, "do you have a Bible?"

He got up and disappeared into the darkness. Soon he returned with a Russian Bible, the book that his nephew had given him, and a dictionary that translated from Russian into Armenian. I got out my English Bible and my ArmenianEnglish dictionary.

With these materials spread across the small kitchen table, in the candlelight we read from 1 Corinthians and the last chapter of the book of Job.

"Kevork," I said, "St. Paul speaks of resurrection in chapter 15. Why don't you read in your Bible while I do the same in mine?" So this Armenian Job read in his Russian Bible, and I read in mine.

Slowly, Kevork read and reread the whole of chapter 15. His eyes grew wide and his Ups moved rhythmically as he read to himself half-aloud. Then his face came aglow.

He looked up at me, and with a shout he exclaimed, "Vigen, Christianity is materialist! It says we will have bodies! I will see Armen's face again, just as I see yours now in the candlelight!"

What the Hindu doctrine could not promise this broken Armenian father, the Bible and Christianity did. St. Paul had assured him that he would see his son again in the kingdom of the Father of all fathers. It was promised.

Kevork and I translated back and forth from Russian to Armenian and Armenian to English and vice versa: "So when this corruptible [body] has put on incorruption, and this mortal [body] has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'"

This text is from the New King James Version of the Bible. Its rendering "O Hades, where is your victory?" rather than the more widely used "O Death, where is your victory?" reflects the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew Bible used by the writers of the New Testament and the early church and embraced by the Eastern churches to this day. St. Paul adapted his poem from Hosea 13:14. The Hebrew is rendered "O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction?"

Orthodox liturgy, iconography and theology interpret "O Hades, where is your victory?" to mean that Christ's victory over death was accomplished not only on the cross and by his resurrection, but also on Holy Saturday. Indeed, Holy Saturday may be the most significant of the three days of Easter. On Friday, Christ is lifted up on the cross. On Saturday, Christ descends into Hades, knocks down its gates and liberates its captives- all of those righteous dead since Adam and Eve who died a corruptible death. On Easter Sunday, Christ rises again into the living world with his resurrected body. The victory over death that commenced on Friday is completed.

On Holy Saturday, the Lord of Light and Life descends, this time not from heaven to earth but from earth into the place of shadows, into the pit of death. There he overcomes darkness with his uncreated light; overcomes corruptible death with his immortal life. On this day, the God-man, who is without sin and who reconciled humankind with God on the cross, not only defeats death but rescues Adam and Eve from the pit of sin and corruption and takes them with him to the kingdom of light and life. A Byzantine hymn announces, "Today Hell groans and cries aloud: 'My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner, and with Him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all ages; but see, He is raising them all."' Likewise, St. Ephrem the Syrian proclaims, "By death the Living One emptied Sheol. He tore it open and let entire throngs flee from it."

St. John Chrysostom of the fourth century reminds us in a homily on 1 Corinthians 15 that in baptism every Christian descends with Christ into Hades and participates in his victory over death, "for the being baptized and immersed, and then emerging, is a symbol of the descent into hell, and the return thence." Eastern icons of Christ's baptism typically depict the waters of the Jordan in dark shades, so that the river has the appearance of a cave, reminiscent of Hades. Often a serpent or dragon figure lurks in the water. Christ, whom John the Baptist blesses, hallows the water and transforms it from a liquid tomb into the river of eternal life by his own bodily presence. The waters are once again the medium or amniotic fluid of life, the life of a new creation in Christ.

Several works by the 15th-century Armenian painter Khatchatur impressively illustrate this connection of Christ's baptism (and every Christian baptism) with Holy Saturday and the descent into Hades. Juxtaposing the image of Christ's baptism (p. 29) with two companion images lends a deeper understanding not only of baptism but of Holy Saturday as well. On p. 27 the image on the left represents the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb, while the image on the right depicts Christ's descent into Hades, or the harrowing of hell. Traditionally in the East, these two subjects represent the resurrection, since the Gospels provide us with no description or explanation of the resurrection event itselt

In the baptism miniature, Khatchatur presents Christ in a strictly upright position as John blesses him. Like an arrow pointed downward, this figure draws our eyes into the water, where Jesus' feet pin down the body of a serpent at the bottom of the river. One foot is on the serpent's head and the other is on its neck. The creature is immobilized, and its snakelike body is twisted into a knot, emphasizing that Christ has confounded and thwarted Satan.

Khatchatur did not invent these details They belong to ancient Christian sources. In this case, I believe, he reflects the great prayer of the blessing of the water in the Armenian Rite of Epiphany. A portion of this prayer states: "And there [at the Jordan stream] he [Christ] beheld the dread dragon lurking in the water; opening its mouth it was eager to swallow down mankind.... But thy only begotten Son by his mighty power trampled the waters under the soles of his feet, sorely punished the mighty brute, according to the prediction of the prophet, that thou hast bruised the head of the dragon upon the waters,"

The prophet to whom the hymn refers is the psalmist. "Thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters. / Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan" (Ps. 74:13-14, RSV). Early Christian exegetes routinely interpreted these verses typologically as a prophecy of Jesus' baptism.

In the illumination of the harrowing of hell, Christ brings into that dark .realm the divine uncreated light that presses out its eternal night in a receding penumbra like waves in an ocean of infinity. He is clad in nail-studded boots with which he has pinned down a prostrate Satan with one foot on Satan's neck and the other on his rump. Christ clasps a red cross in his left hand, like a staff or a scepter. The base of it is firmly seated on Satan's head. The cross is transformed from an instrument of defeat and death into an unambiguous symbol of victory and a weapon that subdues Satan.

The image of the holy women at the sepulcher reinforces these themes of Christ's victory over the demorde powers and death by using some of the same color and symbolism that belongs to the two previous illuminations. The angel announces the good news that Christ is risen to the women as he points to the empty tomb on which he is seated, wearing the same spiked boots that Christ wears in Hades. The tomb itself is transparent, and inside there is a seashell- a conch- or burial wrapping in that shape. The shell is an ancient symbol for baptism. The spiral markings on it may also symbolize the womb from which new life emerges- in this case, rebirth through baptism in the Risen Christ.

With his spiked boots, the angel crushes the heads and bodies of three demons who are struggling to escape the nether region as he looks toward the three women in the upper left-hand corner of the painting who are entering the cave. Through a repetition of the symbolic number three, Khatchatur contrasts the scene of the women above with the demons below.

In his commentary on the Nicene Creed, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes, "We instinctively ask ourselves: why is this word ['buried'] used, and not the word 'died'?" The Creed states: "And he was . . . crucified and suffered and was buried." Schmemann proposes that burial is "an affirmation of a particular understanding of death." In the Christian faith, burial points to things and actions that occur after death. In the case of the death of Jesus Christ, this means "He, who is life itself, descends to death out of love and cosuffering, descends to a death which he did not create, which has taken over the world and poisoned life."

The Life of life dies willingly in order to overcome mortality and corruptible death. The New Adam rescues us from the condition of mortality in which the Old Adam's sin left us. The Son of God brings light, his own uncreated, immaterial light, to the dead who are covered in darkness and subject to the worm. And when he "raised up the dead from the dwelling place beneath the earth, all the powers of heaven cried aloud: 'Giver of Life, O Christ, glory to Thee.'"

In other religions, death is greeted as the immortal soul's great liberator from earthly captivity and woe. In the Christian faith, however, death is the great despoiler of the creature whom God has made in his very own image, whom he has made for eternal life. The human person is not just a soul, for then he is a ghost; nor is he simply a physical body, for then he is a corpse. The human person is a body-and-soul unity, and death sunders this unity. This is the meaning of the corruption of which St. Paul speaks. And it is this death to which my friend Kevork sought an answer. His own flesh and blood had been crushed under concrete and steel, and he yearned to see and embrace that flesh and blood once again.

From his reading of First Corinthians, my friend Kevork grasped this Christian truth about the promise of resurrection, and he greeted it with a shout of joy. I often tell the story of that night of discovery and revelation to my college students. I do so because of the profound confusion about Christian belief that so many of them carry about. Many who regard themselves as Christians do not comprehend or believe what Kevork hoped for, discovered and rejoiced in. Many do not believe in the resurrection of the body. As Schmemann astutely observes, "In the real life of contemporary Christianity and Christians, faith in the resurrection has very little place, however strange that may sound." Ask a contemporary churchgoer what he or she really thinks about death, and "you will hear some vague, and still pre-Christian, idea about the immortality of the soul and its life in some sort of world beyond the grave." This Christian may even affirm that Christ rose bodily and still believe that what awaits us is an immortal existence of the soul.

The Orthodox theology of Holy Saturday rights that error in an unexpected but powerful way. Christ's postresurrection appearances, especially his encounter with the doubting Thomas, have been invoked countless times to correct neoHellenization of the Christian faith. These stories are about Christ and about his resurrected body. Holy Saturday, however, is about our destinies. Hades is a place of dread because it is a "place of . . . disembodiment and disincarnation," a shadowy, insubstantial, spectral realm. Christ's descent into Hades and his destruction of it are the preconditions not only of his own bodily resurrection but of ours as well.

Author affiliation:

Vigen Guroian leaches at the University of Virginia. This article is adapted with permission of the publisher from The Melody of Faith, out next month from Eerdmans (www.eerdmans.com).

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