“The Lightning of his Godhead:” the Resurrectional Hymns in the Second Tone

Job 26:7-14; Isaiah 51:9-11, Mark 9:3, Matthew 17:2, Luke 9:29.

The hymns in tone two for the resurrection (both the troparion and kontakion) are, like the others in the eight-tone sequence, dramatic. Taking their cue from the story of the resurrection itself, these songs highlight the glory of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life, the contrast of the high (the heavens) and the low (“the nethermost depths”) into which he plunged, and the reaction of the whole cosmos. They testify to the wonder that we have, in the Resurrection, seen something of the glory of the Almighty God.

The troparion is so colorful and multi-dimensional that it has been translated in various ways, with different nuances:

When Thou didst descend unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst
Thou slay Hades with the lightning of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst also raise the dead out of the nethermost depths, all the Hosts of Heavens cried out: O Lifegiver, Christ our God, glory be to Thee!

OR

When you descended to death, O Life Immortal, You slew Hades with the power of your godhead. And when from the depths you raised the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out, O Giver of life, Christ our God, glory to You!

One version tries to capture the meaning of what happened by speaking of the God-Man’s “lightning,” while the other uses the more abstract word, “power.” We may be helped, and are especially reminded to do so during this week’s celebration of the Transfiguration, by picturing the glorious scene on Mount Tabor. There Jesus’ divine energies were seen “as much as the disciples could bear it.” On Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of Jesus’ glory—glory as of the only Son of the Father—and they were both astounded and afraid. Mark describes the scene in terms of clothing “whiter than any bleacher could make them,” while Matthew and Luke speak of Jesus’ face and clothing as brilliant “like the sun,” and “dazzling white.”

Jesus, it would seem, let his disciples in on His divine nature, because Peter had recognized his Messiahship, and because they needed to be prepared for what was to come. Theologians argue as to whether they are viewing Jesus’ glory that He always shares with the Father, the wonder of the Resurrection to come, or the future glory promised to Humankind, which we forfeited (for a time) at the Fall. Why do we need to decide? Cannot all of this be so? The glory of God the Son is the glory of the risen Christ, and the God-Man, which He has promised to share with His own.

On the Transfiguration, there was a display given for the benefit of his disciples; but in Hades, that glory was not simply on display, for it was a wielding of divine power! Hades was defeated, and the dead were, as a beloved bishop once put it in a homily, “busted out” of prison! There is quite a difference between noting a sign of majesty and authority, and seeing it used. A sword at rest is a beautiful thing; a sword being used is terrifying! We may imagine, as with Moses in the cleft of the rock, that the Lord shielded the three disciples from seeing the whole of His glory, which would be devastating: but in Hades, and towards the counterfeit powers of the dead, there is no gentleness shown. He tramples down death by death, descends to Hades to destroy its power, and unleashes his life-giving energies, in order to recapture His own and to give them life.

The Old Testament glimpsed this glory in the way that it spoke about God’s creating power, when it poetically narrated the story of God killing “Rahab” the great monster—not to be confused, of course, with Rahab the just, who followed Naomi! Speaking of the creating might of the true God, the book of Job paints this scene for us:

He stretches out the north over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing.
He binds up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not rent under them.
He covers the face of the moon, and spreads over it his cloud.
He has described a circle upon the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness.
The pillars of heaven tremble, and are astounded at his rebuke.
By his power he stilled the sea; by his understanding he smote Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
O, these are but the outskirts of his ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:7-14)

God “smote” Rahab, or “pierced” the fleeing serpent of chaos at the beginning of our world, circumscribing the created world, and separating light from darkness—this is how God’s creating power is described, both here and in other places in the Old Testament. The book of Genesis does not use such poetic language for God’s creating power, probably because in the ancient Mesopotamian and Babylonian literature there are a variety of strange creation myths (for example, the Enuma Elish) that describe the beginning of time in terms of a fight between a limited and young God, and a sea monster, who is split from top to bottom, and her carcass used to make the world. The true God, instead, by his word alone, creates out of nothing: Hebrew scholars may not think that this is a necessary interpretation of the words of Genesis, but this has been the traditional understanding of the Church since the prophetic words of St. Solomonia, mother of the Maccabean martyrs (2 Mac 7:28), and St. Paul the apostle (Romans 4:17; also Hebrews 11:3). Genesis, it would seem, avoids the picturesque language of a battle in order not to give the impression that God needs to actually struggle in order to create—He is the life-giver, and that is that. The icons that we have of God the Word at the creation show Him serenely calling the cosmos into life. God is the Word, speaks, and it is done: no battle here! Chaos and nothingness are no match for him.

Yet, the creation is a magnificent thing to contemplate. And so, in more poetic parts of the Scriptures, the image of a battle is indeed used, with “nothingness,” “chaos,” “Rahab” or “the ancient Serpent” overcome by the LORD of life. The prophet Isaiah, yearning for God to recreate fallen Israel, puts it this way:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon? Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that didst make the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:9-11)

Creation, then, was taken in the OT as a sign of God’s great power, and looked to as a hope of His restoration of the people. Yet, as Job puts it, the glory of God at the creation was only a glimpse of everything that He is: “O, these are but the outskirts of his ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14)

The ancient Hebrews and the prophets knew that God’s glory is immeasurable, and his power unfathomable. He could vanquish evil and bring to life. He could bring to life in the beginning, and they looked for him to bring back to life what had been lost. Because they did not understand the depths of the Incarnation, nor the intimacy of the Holy Spirit as we do, they did not use the word that the fathers did for this great personal presence of God—His ENERGIES. But, because we have seen the glory of Jesus on Mount Tabor, and especially in His holy resurrection, we know that the glory of God has no bounds and comes to enliven us. We may be limited, for a time, in what we can understand of it, but God’s action is as powerful as His essence. His energies slay—they slew the dragon of death, Hades—and his energies bring to life. They slay, and they bring to life!

Our troparion, then reminds us of the ancient creation story, and shows us how the resurrection heralded the NEW creation. The Second Adam, the perfect Man, emerged unscathed from the depths, bringing the dead with Him! As the hymn puts it, Hades is slain with His power, with His divine lightning! And those in the depths, the nethermost depths, are raised. Our eyes are focused on the immensity of Christ’s victory.

But we also hear about an interplay between the heights and the depths. Remember the music from Handel’s Messiah, which puts the nativity of our Lord into dramatic melody? Luke 2:13-14 pictures the heavenly hosts singing: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth”. Handel beautifully captures this as a kind of antiphone, with the hosts singing up high “Glory to God in the highest” and the creation responding, in a lower tone, “And PEACE on earth!” A similar dynamic takes place in our hymn, only in reverse: the dead are raised, and all the hosts of heaven praise the LORD.

The reaction of the cosmos is even further emphasized in the kontakion:

Thou didst arise from the tomb, O omnipotent Savior, and Hades was terrified on beholding the wonder; and the dead arose, and creation at the sight thereof rejoiceth with Thee. And Adam also is joyful, and world, O my Savior, praiseth Thee for ever.

Another version strongly emphasizes the reaction, beginning with the fear of Hades, and ending with the praises of the entire world:

Hades became afraid, O Almighty Savior, seeing the miracle of your resurrection from the tomb. The dead arose! Creation, with Adam, beheld this and rejoiced with you! And the world, O my Savior, praises you forever!

As with the magnificent sermon of St. John Chrysostom on Pascha, Hades, death, is personified here, and shown as terrified—with St. John, Death is embittered. And so in this hymn with have contrasting reactions to Jesus’ great power—fear and joy! And notice the great scope of the joy—it embraces the whole of the fallen race, going right back to Adam (and, of course, to Eve). Not only does it go back to the primordial times, it reaches forward to the final day, for the world is said to praise Him forever. And it is not only the HUMAN world, but also the entire cosmos that gives praise: “Creation, with Adam, beheld this and rejoiced with you!” We are reminded of St. Paul’s words concerning the fallen world in Romans 8:19: “all of creation is on tiptoe waiting to see the sons of God come into their own.” Just as creation was subjected to death and futility because of the transgression of our fore-parents, so because of the obedience (and victory!) of the true Human Being, Jesus, it will be glorified and rejoice. Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of this new creation, the promise of things to come, when the entire cosmos will be restored.

Our hymns in the second tone, then, underscore the mighty divine power of our Lord, the wonder that He has come from the highest and plumbs the very depths, the harmony of heaven and earth in singing his praises, the contrast between the fear of Hades and the joy of the renewed cosmos, and the scope of His resurrection—reaching back before the fall, shooting forward to the Day of the General resurrection, gladdening the hosts of heaven, the children of men, and the very brute beasts. He is the giver of Life, glory to Him!

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