Both the troparion and kontakion for the resurrection in tone three are brimming full of joy. Indeed, I remember being so taken by the troparion that, long before I was chrismated, I sang it for those who were listening to me give a talk on Anglican hymnody. I think it was the end of the verse that was so compelling, with its emphasis upon “great mer—cy!” And the two hymns, taken as a whole, are full of theological and poetic jewels, many of which require knowledge of the Old Testament to be fully appreciated.
First, taken as a pair, the two hymns join together the power and love, the might and compassion of the LORD. The troparion invites us to rejoice because of the God who has wrought might with his arm, and ends with a note about his mercy; the kontakion describes the moment of joy, emphasizing God’s character and acts of mercy or compassion, and closes with a note about God’s might:
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad;
For the Lord hath done a mighty act with His own arm;
He hath trampled down death by death,
and became the first-born from the dead;
He hath delivered us from the depths of Hades,
granting the world the Great Mercy!
Thou didst rise today from the tomb, O Merciful One,
and didst lead us out of the gates of death.
Today Adam danceth and Eve rejoiceth;
and together with them both the Prophets and Patriarchs
unceasingly praise the divine might of Thine authority.
Here is a compelling double picture of our powerful and merciful God, who always acts according to His nature, and who has delivered us from death. We may be reminded of the Psalmist who wrote, “One thing God has said; two things I have heard: Strength belongs to God; so too, my Lord, does mercy” (Psalm 62:12-13). In one word, God communicates both attributes: strength and mercy. In one act, the resurrection, we see this most powerfully displayed!
So, then, the righteous in Israel knew that God’s power and love were not at odds, but joined together in His being. And we know this even more vividly, because of the work of Jesus in history and in our midst.
How else can the OT help us to understand these two hymns? It sheds light on four terms used in the hymns: “heaven and earth,” “the arm of the LORD,” “first-born,” and “depths of Hades” or as one version puts it, “womb of Hades.”
You might ask, why do we need any explanation of “heaven and earth?” Surely, the term is clear enough! The problem is, we usually drive a wedge between these two, thinking of the one only as the abode of God and the angels, and earth as the dwelling place of people and animals. And in some ways, of course, this is true, for Adam’s very name comes from one of the Hebrew words for “earth,” adamah. But frequently the two are paired, as in the very first verse of our Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Similarly, the prophet speaks about “the ordinances of heaven and earth,” (Jer 33:25) Jesus calls upon his “Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Mat 11:25), and it seems as if the two form a single domain of rule, since He also says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mat 28:18 RSV).
Because of the fall, of course, we see the two domains as divided, but “in the beginning it was not so,” nor is it so under the rule of God. It is for this very purpose, not simply to save individual human souls, but to unite the entire cosmos, that the LORD Jesus has come among us, as Colossians says, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). And so the prophet Isaiah foresees a time when there will be “new heavens and new earth,” joined as they were meant to be (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22), and his hope is fleshed out in the book of Revelation. Our troparion anticipates the time when the heavens will resound with joy, and earth will take up the song; and as we worship heaven and earth are joined around the throne of the All-mighty. We may be Adam, “earth-creatures,” but we are, in Christ, joined to the heavens, and partake in her glory at least partially now. In Christ’s resurrection we have seen the dawning of this new day!
Moses looked forward to such bliss. In Deuteronomy we hear about his entreaty with God to enter into the Promised Land, and of God’s refusal to allow this, but of the glimpse that he had from the Mount of Pisgah. Moses’ petition to “go over” is worth noticing: “O Lord GOD, thou hast only begun to show thy servant thy greatness and thy mighty hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as thine? Let me go over, I pray, and see the good land” (Deut 3:24-25).
Well, of course, God does not permit him to enter, but does show him the land from afar. And Moses is quite certain that, on the basis of God’s great acts in creation and history, there is far more than he can ever imagine. Indeed, the story of the Transfiguration suggests that he saw even more—for there, with Elijah, he is pictured in a vision talking with the glorified Lord Jesus about the “exodus” that Jesus was to accomplish for the whole human race, bringing it back to God (Luke 9:31). Moses’ exodus of the people, capped by their entry into Canaan was wonderful enough. But Jesus’ exodus would mean a rescue from Hades, and a rejoicing of Moses with Adam and Eve, with the patriarchs and prophets to come. We are called to enter that final joy even now: “thou didst lead us away from the gates of death. Today Adam exulteth, and Eve rejoiceth, together with the prophets and patriarchs.”
Moses mentioned God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, but there are numerous references to these in the OT. Perhaps the most poignant is the poem in the book of Wisdom regarding the righteous who have died, of whom it is said, “Therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, because with his right hand he will cover them, and with his arm he will shield them” (Wis 5:16). But even that late writer of the OT did not know the full extent of God’s protection. For we have come to see that the “arm of the LORD” is no mere abstract metaphor for God’s ineffable power. We encounter that arm, that energy personally in the humble and all-powerful LORD Jesus, who is, according to St. Irenaeus, one of the two hands of God (the other being, of course, the Holy Spirit). And so Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah as those around Him are rejecting His teaching: “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:38, cf. Is 53:1). The Hebrew people had seen this display of God’s outstretched hand in battle and in the terrifying sights atop Mt. Sinai; we see His physical hand outstretched to teach, and on the cross to heal and bless. Along with His power and authority goes His heart-breaking compassion.
The troparion also speaks about Jesus being the “first-born” of Hades, or of the dead. Perhaps we are tempted to think of this just in terms of ORDER—He is the first to be resurrected. But that would be to trivialize, for He is not just the first resurrected, but. in himself, the Resurrection and the Life. In the OT the idea of “first-born” is very important. All the first-born of Israel belonged by right to God, and had to be “redeemed” by sacrifice (Ex 22:29). The first-born received a double share of the inheritance, and every father was mandated to obey this rule even if he disliked his eldest (Deut 21:16-17). And God considered the Jewish people to be his “first-born:” He introduces the Hebrews as His first-born to Pharoah (Ex 4:22), and demands that Pharoah let them go to worship Him as they ought; He consoles fallen Israel with these words: “I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born (Jer 31:9 RSV). But, of course, the real First-born who would lead them back, and who would make not only Jews but Gentiles children of God, is God the Son, who by His incarnation becomes “the first-born among many brethren” (Rom 8:29), and by His resurrection, “the first-born from the dead.” The very hand of God that created becomes the hand of God that saves:
All things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. 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 fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:16-20 RSV).
This first-born Son, indeed, goes to the very depths of our darkened humanity to create this peace by His mighty arm. One way of translating “the depths of hell/hades” (mentioned in our troparion) is “the womb of Hades.” Now that may seem odd, for how can the realm of death be a womb, how can the angel of death be a mother? This striking language reminds us of God’s ability even to work in darkness, to trample down death by death. What the enemy meant for our death, He has turned to our good. This happened to Joseph in the pit. This happened to Jonah in the huge fish. It also happened to the three youths in the fiery furnace, who were not even singed by flame, but felt a moist and nurturing wind, in which they rejoiced, along with a fourth mysterious walker. As we sing on Holy Saturday, “Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever; for he has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace; from the midst of the fire he has delivered us.”
In fact, Orthodox worshippers on Christmas day are encouraged to see that moist furnace as a sign pointing forward to the holy Theotokos herself, who bore the LORD of all and was not harmed, but blessed, by her all-powerful and unique First-born within:
Babylon’s furnace moist with dew bore the image
of an extraordinary wonder.
For it did not burn the youths it accepted,
nor did the fire of Divinity consume the Virgin’s womb wherein it went.
So let us melodiously chant in praise:
Let all creation bless and extol the Lord,
and let it exalt Him supremely to the ages.
(Canticle Eight, canon Christmas Day)
What we see at the beginning of the LORD’s visitation among us is true also of the end! He comes out of holy Mary’s womb to save, having sanctified her by His presence. He comes out of the belly, the “womb” (so to speak) of Hades, to complete this salvation, destroying Hades from the inside out. Even what we thought to be final destruction He bends to His will, deceiving Hades and bringing forth life in all its fullness! His presence within confirms the character of each matrix—the freely offered womb and person of Mary, on the one hand; the grasping, usurping, deadly belly of the monster, on the other. Both in compassion and in judgment He shows His love for us, and brings to us salvation. Indeed, He has, in His might, become for us the Great Mercy of God! And so we rejoice, dancing with the prophets who saw this from afar!