Theophany and the Gates of Hades

For an Orthodox priest, the services of the Church involve many “comings and goings.” Part of any service takes place within the altar area, which is usually enclosed by an iconostasis, a wall on which icons are hung. The wall does not truly separate one area of the Church from another so much as it marks one area off from another – the space of the Church is itself an icon. But within these spaces, the priest (and deacon) move back and forth. Going out from the altar and entering back in to the altar. Each exit and entrance has its own meaning within the context of the service. I often think of the Psalm verse, “May the Lord bless your going and your coming in…” With this action, for me, has come an increased awareness of doors and entrances within Scripture. For the doors of the altar bear a relationship with the various “doors” in Scripture.

I have often thought about the meditation attached to the closed doors of the altar early in the service of Vespers. The priest stands before them, head bowed, and prays. I have been told that the closed doors represent the closed doors of paradise, with the priest standing outside them, like Adam, weeping for his sins. It is always a poignant thought.

The gates of paradise always have a strange double quality to them. When they are open the world becomes heaven. When they are closed all becomes Hades. It is the gates of Hades that Christ promises will not prevail against the Church.

I have also noted over the years that most people seem to concern themselves with the “larger” gates of Hades. They want to know who goes there, who stays there and why, and how they can avoid the entire thing. Some people seem to be experts on Hades and Hell.

There is a far more intimate and immediate question concerning Hades’ gates. This is the question of its gates within the heart. For the human heart is like a microcosm of all things. There we can find both the gate of paradise and the gate of Hades. I’m convinced that if we do not first find paradise within our heart then we will never know it otherwise. Salvation may be eternal, but it is also immediate.

To stand before the closed gates of paradise within the heart and weep is to begin to pray.

Tonight I served the Vigil for the Feast of Theophany (Christ’s Baptism). The richness of the feast is beyond description. The texts that are sung are among the most theologically profound that I know. It is difficult to serve the feast and not insist that the service stop at points – that we might stand in silent wonder.

Christ at the Jordan is Christ before the gates of paradise (and Hades). In many icons of Christ’s Baptism, the gates of Hades lie beneath His feet (it almost looks like He is surfing), with snakes sticking their heads out from beneath. These snakes are the “dragons who lurked there,” mentioned in Psalm 74.

The Lord refashions broken Adam in the streams of the Jordan.
And He smashes the heads of dragons lurking there.
The Lord does this, the King of the ages;
for He has been glorified.
From the St. Cosmas’ Canon of Matins for the feast 

St. John of Damascus offers a dazzling array of images on Christ’s Baptism in his Canon for the feast. In the seventh ode he compares Christ’s Baptism with His salvation of the Three Young Men in the fiery furnace:

He stilled the furnace’s towering flame
when it encircled the pious Youths,
and He burned the heads of the dragons in the waters.
With the dew of the Spirit He washes away
all the blindness born of sin.

By changing the fierce Assyrian flame to dew,
You stilled the fire that prefigured You;
For now You have clothed Yourself in water, O Christ,
as a flame that burns the evil trickster hidden in its depths,
who entices us to the path of destruction.

For a variety of reasons, Theophany is perhaps my favorite feast (excluding Pascha itself). Years ago I did not know what to make of Christ’s Baptism. Now, I hardly know what it does not include. It is a feast of doors – the smashing of one set and the opening of another. I pray that the doors in my heart are opened – or smashed – whatever seems best and most needed.

 

Comments

  1. Karen says

    Father, bless! Thank you for this meditation. I’m reminded of another Priest’s homily that Owen White once recounted at his old web site. Its theme was Christ’s baptism in the Jordan prefiguring His death noting its contrast to the parting of the Jordan River (and the Red Sea) for the Children of Israel to cross over on dry land. Instead of marching across victorious eluding death, Christ goes down into the waters down into our death, suffering our defeat in order to conquer it on our behalf. You could say that the passage of the Children of Israel through parted waters (opened gates), the first their escape from the slavery of Egypt (Hades) and the second their entering into the Promised Land (Paradise) was made possible because Christ refused to cross over in like manner and instead accepted the Cross, His baptism. It was a very powerful message.

  2. says

    eek! i’m still mulling over your last post. stop posting so thoughtfully so close together!!! ha!! ha!! ha! thanks for this. i’m just beginning to catch on to all the nuances of the feasts of the Church.

  3. sergieyes says

    Father bless! Christ is amongst us!
    “You stilled the fire that prefigured You…” This appears to be pretty obscure grammar, leading me to expect that there is something in the original language (Greek probably) a little clearer. Did the fire prefigure Jesus Christ by being a death dealing element, even as being lifted in the air on the cross made air poisonous (by its rigors and langors)? The water of our death seems to point to archetypes such as
    “Yin”–feminine, lax, deadly. Is this a proper approach? Otherwise: ADVISE.
    Thanks for help on this obscurity. Sergieyes.

  4. says

    Thank you for posting. I was reading last night that the baptism of Christ we should also remember our own baptism. Quite difficult if one was baptized as a baby…but to remember the meaning of it in repentance and in humility.

    blessing,
    david

  5. says

    h west:

    Don’t feel bad. The nuances are infinite IMO. I’ve been Orthodox 10+ years & I am still discovering nuances. The Orthodoxy Faith can be explained so that even a young child can understand, but no one can fully comprehend it all.

    We were able to hold a procession to the local river just a few blocks away from our parish today for a Blessing of the Waters. We had to punch a hole through the ice & it was very windy & cold, but what a beautiful service was performed on the Muddy Mississippi!

    Blessed Theophany to all :-)

  6. dinoship says

    Thank you for this deep meditation Father, it gladdens my heart how you remind us of what is really needful! (” I’m convinced that if we do not first find paradise within our heart then we will never know it otherwise. Salvation may be eternal, but it is also immediate.

    To stand before the closed gates of paradise within the heart and weep is to begin to pray.”)

  7. George Engelhard says

    THE SOVEREIGNTY TRAINING

    THE HOLY OF HOLIES

    By
    George W. Engelhard
    C 2000

    MY HEART IS THE HOLY OF HOLIES

    Twelve times, pray this acknowledgement to the Fullness of the HOLY TRINITY in the HOLY OF HOLIES, you heart.

    AT MY BAPTISM, HOLY TRINITY, YOU ESTABLISHED YOUR THRONE ROOM IN MY HEART, MAKING IT THE HOLY OF HOLIES. YOU RESIDE HERE NOW.

    Three times through, pray this series of inquires to the Fullness of the HOLY TRINITY in the HOLY OF HOLIES, your heart. Listen in your heart for the answer.

    HOLY TRINITY, YOU SIT ON YOUR THRONE IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, MY HEART. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU?

    HOLY TRINITY, YOU SIT ON YOUR THRONE IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, MY HEART. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO ME?

    HOLY TRINITY, YOU SIT ON YOUR THRONE IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, MY HEART. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOUR CREATION?

    HOLY TRINITY, YOU SIT ON YOUR THRONE IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, MY HEART. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO HUMANITY, TO EVERY HUMAN BEING, TO EVERY PERSON I ENCOUNTER?

    MAKE ME WORTHY

    Twelve times, pray this petition to the Fullness of the HOLY TRINITY in the HOLY OF HOLIES, your heart.

    HOLY TRINITY, IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, MY HEART, MAKE ME WORTHY TO DWELL WITH YOU THERE.

    …and God can only make us worthy to dwell with Him there by making us humble and contrite with tears. I pray often In front of the icon Extreme Humility that Jesus will humble me. It is a fearful thing to ask God for humility. He will humble you.

  8. fatherstephen says

    Sergieyes,
    This sort of meditation (the verses) is quite typical of the fathers. They are heard in the vigils of the Church. In general, we never have to look outside the teachings of the Church to understand them (though we have to look much deeper). That being said, we would not look towards a feminine principle etc. There’s not any teaching about such universals.

    What the saints have in mind here, is a very poetic meditation on certain images. The Canon is a poetic composition that is sung in Matins. It consists of 9 Odes, each one replacing one of the Biblical Odes. Sorry for the history stuff.

    Those Odes are:
    The Ode of Moses in Exodus (Exodus 15:1-19)
    The Ode of Moses in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 32:1-43)
    The Prayer of Anna the mother of Samuel the Prophet (I Kingdoms 2:1-10)
    The Prayer of Habbakuk the Prophet (Habbakuk 3:2-19)
    The Prayer of Isaiah the Prophet (Isaiah 26:9-20)
    The Prayer of Jonah the Prophet (Jonah 2:3-10)
    The Prayer of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56)*
    The Song of the Three Holy Children (The Benedicite, Daniel 3:57-88)*
    The Song of the Theotokos (The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55) and the Prayer of Zacharias the father of the Forerunner (The Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79)

    Instead of singing these actual Biblical Songs (Odes), the Church substitutes these poetic meditations composed by the saints (St. John of Damascus was a great composer of such hymns). In each “Ode,” the verse takes the subject of the feast (such as Christ’s Baptism), and sings a reflection on the feast through the lens of that particular song. It’s a very rich way to meditate on Scripture, and to “tease” the deeper meaning out of things.

    So, in the verses I was quoting, we are looking at verses on the Prayer of the Three Holy Children (the Youths in the Fiery Furnace). It and Christ’s Baptism are being mystically compared to one another, bringing much deeper meanings to the surface.

    In the children’s experience in the furnace, the Fire is the great danger, threatening to kill them. In Daniel, it says that another figure “like the Son of Man” was seen standing with them in the furnace. They were unhurt, their hair not even singed. It also says that they felt a “moist wind” like “dew.”

    So, in the Canon, the fire of the furnace is seen as a type of Christ, a prefiguring, as it says in Hebrews “Our God is a consuming fire.” But it is clear that the fire of the furnace is Christ, because it does not burn (just as the fire in the burning bush was Christ and the bush was not burned). So we see Christ in the midst of the flames, felt as a gentle dew. He “stilled” that fire, making it unhurtful.

    Then the writer turns the image around (now he is examining Christ’s Baptism by the lens of the fiery furnace). And he does something very common in these hymns – he turns things inside out. The Christ who stilled the flames as a fiery dew, now burns the “heads of the dragons” as a water that burns. It’s rich, and typical of this sort of meditation.

    All of this is similar to the Orthodox understanding of Hell. You’ll often hear the fires of hell as being nothing other than God Himself, and that they only “burn” those who are refusing Christ, not because the fires are deadly, but because it is our own opposition to God that is deadly. The danger in the waters of Baptism is not towards those who love God, but towards the enemy. For him, even the waters are burning.

    In our own lives, it is the same as well. God does not hurt us, though we sometimes find ourselves “burned” by His work in our lives. It is the saving fire of God, destroying everything that stands between us and Him.

    My favorite example of this “double effect” is in Exodus 14. There we are told that the pillar of fire “came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.

    These are not easy things to meditate on – but they are worth good effort. If one doesn’t seem to quite work for you, just lay it aside. One of my purposes in quoting these was to demonstrate from the Tradition this method of mystical meditation. Blessings!

  9. dinoship says

    There is a very profound effect on a person who pays close attention to the 9 Ode Canons at Matins as they are sung every single day (more than one usually -due to the way we celebrate the feast of the day of the Year, and the way we commemorate the event of the day of the week etc) in Orthodox Monasteries (365 days a year), virtually lost in the majority of Churches in the “world”. When they are sung well, the effect is even more profound!

    However, God, of course, bestows his blessings, sometimes more so, even to those who never get to enjoy any more than some butchered and badly sung versions of this beautiful treasure of our Church…

  10. sergieyes says

    Fr.Stephen tells us:”Sergieyes,This sort of meditation (the verses) is quite typical of the fathers. etc.” The explanation is very clear. I am deeply beholden to you for this clarification of cultural difficulties. Many thanks indeed!
    I found a recitation of the Psalm 50, or sometimes 51, the Penitential Psalm, and arranged to hear it recited continually as I went through Theophany. The constant repeating, I hope, brings me closer to surrendering all opposition to God. This is the Russian chant of Ps. 51.

    http://www.tubereplay.com/replay.php?tqr=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DIeU23SzOm_Q&Submit=Replay

    This will loop. Here is the original, not as a loop:

  11. Michael Bauman says

    “To stand before the closed gates of paradise within the heart and weep is to begin to pray.”