1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:6; Ephesians 4:9-10; Matthew 27:50-54; Philippians 2:5-11; Isaiah 61:10-62:5
The Scriptures are fairly quiet about what happened between the crucifixion and the resurrection appearances of Jesus to St. Mary Magdalene and the twelve early on Pascha morning. There are only three Biblical passages, (or possibly four) that intimate what the Church has called “the harrowing” or “despoiling” of Hades by our Lord:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey (1 Peter 3:18-20a)
… [T]he gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. (1 Peter 4:6)
In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. (Eph 4:9-10)
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Mat 27:50-54)
The two passages from 1 Peter are fairly incontrovertible, though they are brief. Rather than ignoring them, some Protestant commentators have tried to massage what they say, suggesting, against the context of the passages, that the apostle is speaking about how those from the OT period (who are obviously NOW dead), had the gospel preached to them during their life-time. Some have also tried to explain away the passage by Ephesians, asserting that it simply refers to the descent of God the Son to earth, including its lower parts like the valleys and caves. (This is not very likely, since Paul is contrasting the “descent” with his “ascent” into heaven). And the gospel passage speaks only about the result of His descent—the opening of the tombs—not about the descent itself, so those not predisposed to believe in Jesus’ descent to Hades interpret the opening of the tombs as a mere result of the earthquake, and not an act of God.
All in all, the Scriptural pickings are meager, but they are there. And this is what we should expect of the Scriptures. For they are concerned about the public preaching of the gospel, and so focus upon Jesus’ death and resurrection, rather than the mysterious doings between these key events. Yet the descent into Hades remains an important part of the Tradition, underscoring for us all that Christ accomplished. We have remembered His victory on Saturdays, and especially on Holy Saturday, since the earliest times of the Church. We also celebrate this divine revolutionary event on the many Sundays in which we sing the sixth resurrectional troparion and kontakion.
The Troparion is dramatic:
Angelic Hosts were above Thy tomb,
and those who guarded Thee became as dead,
and Mary stood by the grave seeking Thine immaculate Body.
Thou didst despoil Hades and wast not tempted by it.
Thou didst meet the Virgin and didst grant us life.
O Thou Who didst rise from the dead, O Lord, glory be to Thee.
Here we see the many players in the divine drama—the attending and announcing angels, the bewildered soldier-guard, the weeping Mary, the Lord who has successfully triumphed over Hades, the Theotokos, and the whole of the Christian community.
And the Kontakion is full of extremes:
Having by His life-bestowing hand
raised up all the dead out of the dark abysses,
Christ God, the Giver of Life,
hath bestowed the Resurrection upon the fallen human race;
for He is the Savior of all, the Resurrection, and the Life, and the God of all.
In this hymn, we celebrate our being raised out of darkness by God’s hand of life, and remember the wonder that he has raised those who have fallen!
The entire event is mysterious. But especially in the troparion, there are two specific and curious items that cry out for attention. First: why on earth do we exclaim that Christ was not tempted by Hades—what could possibly be tempting about that realm? And second, why does the troparion speak of Jesus appearing to His mother, when we have no record of that in Scriptures? Let us take each problem in turn.
“He descended into Hades, not being tempted by it.” Some have thought that this is simply a way of saying that Jesus might have been tempted to despair, like all those who die, but that because He was Victor over life, He did not. We might picture the dramatic encounter on the stone table between the divine Lion Aslan and the demonic White Witch of death, in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. Aslan, like Christ, has been bound and is to be slain to bring about the release of Edmund, the betrayer. But just before his death, the Witch gloats:
“And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.”
Of course, the Witch does not know Aslan’s power, or she would not have taken this line—but her words show the pain that evil can inflict. By them, Lewis suggests the mental agony that we can suppose our Lord underwent, along with the physical. The devil, who had departed from Him “for a season,” would surely have returned in full force at the time of His death, hoping to find Him in a weakened and vulnerable state. Jesus did not despair, despite his cry of dereliction from Psalm 22 (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”) Instead, he ends earthly life with the triumphant, “It is finished.”
But what of His actual experience in Hades? Unlike those of us who die with unfinished business, there was no sin in Him, and so no need for fear. He descended into the gloom, extending His earthly sacrifice even further than the shadowlands of earth for our sake. Now in Hades was One who transcended the Old Testament declaration that “the dead do not praise you”: in His descent, He gave glory to His Father, becoming the One who would lead the dead, not just spiritually, but with new bodies, back into the land of the living. The dead may not have the ability to praise, but God raises the dead, and newly alive, they will certainly praise Him!
I am reminded of one of the stanzas of that hymn associated with Anaphora of St James:
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.
These words, of course, are speaking of OUR world as full of darkness, but enlightened by Christ—but so, too, was Hades overcome by the Light which it could not contain! Jesus despoiled Death of those who belonged, foundationally, to God, the author of life.
But this language of “despoiling” and “tempting” leads us to another meditation. It is helpful to know that in the ancient mind, Pluto (the Latin name) or Hades (the Greek) was the wealthy god of the underworld, who lived sumptuously, and who was “fed” by the sorrow of those whom he entrapped. Indeed, the Roman name Pluto means “wealthy,” and his insignia was actually the cornucopia, since the seeds below the earth, which was his domain, issued in the harvest. His bride, Persephone, was also associated with the harvest, and had been entrapped in Hades because she accepted Hades’ hospitality, and ate six pomegranate seeds! Nor was she the only one imprisoned there. The ancient mythology is replete with those so tempted. The only success story of one who returned, having despoiled Hades, as least just a little, is the myth of Psyche. She descended to retrieve the box of Persephone’s “beauty,” and escaped unscathed to be reunited with her divine husband. Her quest in Hades is full of temptations: she is instructed not to stop on the way down or up, nor speak to anybody, nor take anything but the object for which she was sent. Her success in returning is an oddity. It would seem that the ancients, whose mythology reflected human nature, considered humans too greedy, short-sighted and undisciplined* . Everyone but Psyche gives in to the temptations of that dark but opulent realm. The final state of people, imprisoned in the dark, is an apt end to the all-too-human life of avarice and imbalance. But Psyche’s desire was more altruistic, and perhaps this woman, whose name means “soul,” pictured for these pagans the hope that a true person, with desires in order, might stay focused upon the most important matters, and so escape prison.
Christ our God, of course, is the true “Psyche,” the only human soul who has accomplished such a task. Indeed, it is by His victory over the flesh, the world and the devil, that sin and death are overcome: as Lord over the whole cosmos, there is nothing in that dark world that can tempt Him. What He did in Hades establishes the great hymn we find in Philippians 2:5-11 concerning His person and His prowess:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
God the Son began our salvation by sacrificing the glory that was rightfully His for our sake. He continued this self-denial during His humble life in Galilee; He brought it to a climax (or nadir!) as He ascended the cross and then descended into Hades, not being tempted by its dark charms. As a result, all “in heaven and earth and under the earth” recognize that He is LORD of all. He meets this “last temptation” successfully, in concert with the whole tenor of His life; the greatness of the God-Man is seen in His humility and compassion. He descended even to Hades, to the antipodes of His heavenly home, for our sake!
What we see in Christ we also see echoed and extended in the humble story of His mother. “He came to the Virgin, granting life.” In speaking of Jesus appearing to his Mother, Orthodox have some controversy not with Protestants, but with some Catholics. Though many pious Catholics, from Jerome to Pope John Paul, have believed that Jesus indeed appeared to her, some have said that this is simply legend. In fact, though, we see evidence for it as early as St. Ambrose (On Virginity), if not even earlier. (A century earlier, Origen mentions a now-lost gospel account in which, apparently, the Theotokos is met by Christ). Catholics may debate this event, but Orthodox celebrate the reunion regularly in our hymnody, and many of our fathers, such as St. Gregory Palamas, affirm it.
In the matins reading for this Sunday of the Holy Fathers, John 20:1-10, we hear about the initial absence of Jesus at that early morning hour— an absence noted first by St. Mary Magdalene, and then by Peter and John whom she runs to tell. Where was the LORD? Why the delay in seeing the three whom he loved so well—St. Mary and John who had stayed by His side at the cross, and St. Peter whose heart was no doubt broken by the betrayal? Could He not have been assuring His mother, whose heart had been pierced, that death had been vanquished? The Scriptural list of resurrection appearances is not exhaustive. St. Paul mentions some in 1 Corinthians 15, and the gospels others. St. Paul also counts himself as one to whom the Lord appeared, as we read in Galatians 1:11-19, the gospel reading for the OCA on this Sunday of the Fathers.
Not one of the Scriptural passages explicitly mentions the Theotokos during this time, though it is likely that she was with the twelve in the upper room when Jesus appeared. But our Troparion singles her out: He met her, granting life. What he granted to His mother, He grants to all who honor her as their mother. As the Kontakion puts it, “Christ God, the Giver of Life, has bestowed the Resurrection upon the fallen human race; for He is the Savior of all.”
And so on Pascha, we sing of the joy of Mary, and the shining of the New Jerusalem, into which we are incorporated. The Theotokos, and all of us in the household of Christ, are brought by Him into the light. The final words of the prophet Isaiah speak of this incredible joy, when the LORD triumphs over darkness, and brings us into the light:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My delight is in her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isa 61:10-62:5 RSV)
The time of darkness, desolation, desert, barrenness, and separation is over. The time of light, joy, fruitfulness, regeneration, and reunion, has come. For He descended into Hades, not being tempted by it, and He came to the Virgin, granting us all life!