Taken as a pair, the resurrectional hymns in tone five demonstrate both the corporate and the personal nature of our faith. The troparion enjoins “us, the faithful” to praise Christ; the kontakion speaks to the Savior with an intimacy and a grateful devotion that recognizes His personal connection with each of us, as well as His universal love for all humankind. Here are the two hymns:
Let us, O faithful, praise and worship the Word Who is co-unoriginate with the Father and the Spirit, and Who was born of the Virgin for our salvation; for He was pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh and to endure death, and to raise the dead by His glorious Resurrection.
Unto Hades, O my Savior, didst Thou descend, and having broken its gates as One omnipotent, Thou, as Creator, didst raise up the dead together with Thyself. And Thou didst break the sting of death, and didst deliver Adam from the curse, O Lover of mankind. Wherefore, we all cry unto Thee: Save us, O Lord.
In their “posture,” the two hymns together picture each worshipper, and all worshippers together in adoration before the Word, the Savior, the God-Man who created and delivered us. But their true subject matter is not humanity: it is the second Person of the Trinity, to whom each of us and all of us cry out. These hymns celebrate the ineffable nature of the One who loves us. The troparion focusses on “the Word,” the One who is “eternal,” or (to be more precise) “co-un-originate” (sun/an/archon), along with the Father and Spirit. Christ is also described as incarnate for our sake, as “pleased” to “ascend” the Cross, and as the Resurrection for all who believe. The second hymn goes on to detail what happened after the cross—Jesus’ descent into Hades, His harrowing of Hell, His undoing of the curse, and the worship given to Him by all. So, the hymns range from the ineffable to the practical: as humans we can only guess at the meaning of “unoriginate,” but all of us know what it is to cry out for help, saying, “Save us!”
Let’s begin with the easiest detail, our cries for salvation. This is so basic to our theological understanding that we enact it several times in our Divine Liturgy. First, in the entrance hymn, we call out “Save us, O Son of God, who art risen from the dead” (or, “who wast baptized in the river Jordan,” or “who rode upon the foal of a donkey,” or whatever the variable might be). Remembering the scene from Palm Sunday, we might also think of our prayer during the anaphora: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD.” These were the words shouted by the children, of course, and so we have confirmed for us the very basic and elementary nature of this call for rescue. “Hosanna!” is not a fancy way of saying, “Alleluia,” but means in Hebrew, “O Save us!” At rock-bottom, it recognizes the difference between God and ourselves—He is the deliverer, and we are the ones in need of help. This sentence comes, of course, from Psalm 117 (Hebrew text Psalm 118). It is in this Psalm that we hear of the rejected and reinstated Stone, Jesus, about worshipping on the day that the LORD has made, and about how it is appropriate for all to rejoice as they process into the LORD’s house. And it is in this Psalm, in verse 25, that we hear the cry, “Hosanna!” that is, “Save us, we beseech thee, O LORD!”
For it is the LORD, the One who has done great things, who alone can save. So foundational is this knowledge to our existence as creatures that Jesus, when He was told to quiet the children as He entered Jerusalem, replied that if they did not cry out, the very stones would! The Creator of all, the LORD of the Temple, was entering into His own world, and into His own city, to bring salvation. He, along with the Father and the Spirit, has no beginning, but has always been: He is syn-an-archon, “co-eternal,” “co-un-originate.” But, in humility, and on a foal, He comes to be among His own.
And the throne that He ascends is a shocker! What begins as a strange festal procession into Jerusalem ends with Jesus “pleased to ascend” the cross, in the same frail human flesh that we possess. He is the perfect Representative, and the only suitable Substitute: He works in complete cooperation with His Father, and in complete solidarity with us. St. John the Golden-Mouthed puts the terrible scene before our eyes:
What did this mediator do? The work of a mediator! For it is as if two had been turned away from each other and since they were not willing to talk together, another one comes, and, placing himself in the middle, loosened the hostility of each of the two. And this is also what Christ did. God was angry with us, for we were turning away from God, our human-loving Master. Christ, by putting Himself in the middle, exchanged and reconciled each nature to the other. And how did He put himself in the middle? He Himself took on the punishment that was due to us from the Father and endured both the punishment from there and the reproaches from here.
Do you want to know how He welcomed each? Christ, Paul says, “redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.” You have seen how He received from on high the punishment that had to be borne! Look how also from below He received the insults that had to be borne: “The reproaches of those who reproached you,” Scripture says, “have fallen upon me.” Haven’t you seen how He dissolved the enmity, how He did not depart before doing all, both suffering and completing the whole business, until He brought up the one who was both hostile and at war—brought that one up to God Himself, and He made him a friend? (S in Ascensionem D.N.J.C., Migne 50.444-446).
We may think of the cross as an affliction (and it was, beyond our comprehension); but it is also the place from which our Lord began His reign: in ascending the cross, he enters into His glory, as St. John the evangelist puts it; the cross is His throne! Here we see both God’s justice and His love made manifest. It is by death that He tramples down death. It is in the middle of the air, positioned between earth and heaven that He reconciles Humanity with God— indeed, all things in heaven and on earth.
So far, then, we have seen the character of our great God, made clear for all to see in the God-Man Jesus. We have rejoiced in His responsiveness to our cry for help, His un-originate and Trinitarian nature, His condescension, as He is pleased to be humble for our sake, and His unspeakable love. What we might think of as a low point, his suspension on the cross, is actually an “ascent” for our sake. But there is more. The kontakion goes on to tell us that He descended to the lower parts of the earth, in order to release humankind from the curse. Not only does the resurrection validate Jesus’ status as the Anointed One, but it is effective for our sake—He raises Adam and all the faithful dead along with Himself! As St. John Chrysostom put it, “He did not depart before doing all, both suffering and completing the whole business, until He brought up the one who was both hostile and at war—brought that one up to God Himself, and He made that one a friend.” For it was we who were enemies with God; God is not our enemy, but does all to bring us back to Himself.
Why the primal curse, then? We might be tempted to think of the curse as the problem and the cross as the solution. And so, some have thought of the OT God as a God of anger and the NT God as a God of love. But God is One. Indeed, the punishment itself was an early stage in God’s healing of us and the world; moreover, it prevented hell from taking over creation, until all things could be accomplished for us. As God Himself commented after the sin of our first parents, it would have been a disaster had Adam then “put forth his hand and take[n] also of the tree of life, and eat[en], and live[d] forever” (Gen 3:22) in his compromised state. And so the removal from Eden, and the limitations put on the power of Adam and Eve over their own bodies and over creation was a “severe Mercy.”
The curse was the first word of God after the fall, but not the last. By battling the creation to make order, Adam learned that he was not, like God, all-knowing. By submission to her husband and difficulty in childbirth, Eve learned that her life is not her own to grasp, but is in God’s hands. Still we sub-govern, and sub-create, for that is in our nature as those made in the image of God. But the difficulty we have in doing this is a potent reminder of our distance from God, and the sad distance we have from each other. In Christ’s resurrection, though, we are reminded that the “sting” of death has been removed; when we behold an icon of the harrowing of Hell, or sing, “Christ is Risen from the dead,” we look forward to another time, a time when, as the book of Revelation puts it, there will be no more curse.
No one could have imagined how God would accomplish this, our restoration, and, even more than that, our glorification. For we are not just to be rescued, but to be made fully sons and daughter of God through the One who was pleased to call us “brothers” and “sisters.” Even the unseen hostile Powers did not imagine this, and so Hades was deceived into thinking that He had captured the Prince of Life when Jesus gave Himself. But we know what the evil Powers did not know—we know that God, the Lover of humanity, has fully become one of us, so that He could make us what He is. And so we understand what to do when we hear the encouragement to worship at the beginning of this troparion, and at the Little Entrance. We sing a hymn, and we worship—literally, we “fall down,” or make prostrations, before Him. Sunday by Sunday, when we are together, and day by day, when each of us adores Him at our icon corner, surrounded by the saints, we cry, “Save us, Hosanna!” until He comes again.