Great and Holy Saturday, May 1, 2021
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today on this Great and Holy Saturday, we participate in the Harrowing of Hell by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. On this day He invades the Underworld itself, smashes open its doors, defeats the god of death, and binds him forever, then leading the righteous departed into Paradise.
Our ritual participation in these events is multi-layered, and tonight at the services of Pascha we will experience both the invasion of Hades as the priest knocks on its door and also the leading of the faithful into Paradise when the doors of the church are opened. It is not perfectly linear, and we often seem to rewind chronologically over and over to participate in another layer of what is happening – consider how many Gospel readings we hear where Christ suffers, dies and is buried.
Today I want to focus on one layer that is particularly highlighted during this Divine Liturgy, which is expressed by the singing of Psalm 82 (or in the Greek numbering, Psalm 81). The translation that we sing here in Emmaus is from the Douay-Rheims Bible, and here it is in full:
God hath stood in the congregation of gods: and being in the midst of them he judgeth gods.
How long will you judge unjustly: and accept the persons of the wicked?
Judge for the needy and fatherless: do justice to the humble and the poor.
Rescue the poor; and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner.
They have not known nor understood: they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth shall be moved.
I have said: You are gods and all of you the sons of the most High.
But you like men shall die: and shall fall like one of the princes.
Arise, O God, judge thou the earth: for thou shalt inherit among all the nations.
You will recognize that last verse as the refrain we sing over and over.
So this psalm is about God standing up in the divine council—that is, among the angelic powers He created, called here “the congregation of gods”—and judging them. And to the wicked, rebellious ones, He accuses them of failing to do what He created them for but instead being evil, and then He declares that they will die. And then the final lines calls upon Him to render that judgment, because He is going to “inherit among all the nations.”
So why is this psalm sung in the midst of our participation in the Harrowing of Hell? It is because that is the moment (from our point of view) when God enacts that judgment. The prophetic call in the final verse—“Arise, O God!”— is an indication that this happens during this invasion of Hell and the Lord’s rising from the dead.
But why put these resurrectional themes into a psalm about judging the gods, about putting the fallen angels in their place and working justice upon them?
It is because the whole cosmic narrative of the Scripture is about the war begun by these fallen ones against God. And they draw mankind over and over into their rebellion. This is the origin of sin. It was not something Adam invented, but something he was enticed into by a demon who is then cast down to become the god of death, “eating ashes and dust.” And then sin multiplied when it demonically mastered Adam’s son Cain.
Later, at the Tower of Babel, mankind tried to reach God and control Him through idolatry, so God divided the nations and withdrew His direct presence from creation. He gave mankind to be ruled by proxy by angelic powers. But those angelic powers rebelled against Him, too, by accepting worship from mankind. And so paganism began.
And so the whole of human history is now being caught in the crossfire, so to speak. This is why there is suffering in the world, because we are afflicted by the demons who hate God and resent that He promised that we would become like the angels—to take the place that they abandoned. And whenever we sin, we multiply this affliction.
But the whole of God’s history with mankind is about rescuing us from domination by His enemies the demons. So He defeats the three problems that mankind has in the Fall—death, sin and domination by demons. All these things are demonic in origin, as you can see.
It is the tyrannical rule by demons that is especially addressed in Psalm 82. God says to these spiritual beings that they “judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked,” meaning that they help evil people and not the righteous. He says they were supposed to “Judge for the needy and fatherless: do justice to the humble and the poor. / Rescue the poor; and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner.” But instead they afflicted the lowly.
And because of what they did, “They have not known nor understood: they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth shall be moved.” That last piece tells us what is happening here. Because the demons brought darkness and ignorance, the earth’s foundations would be shaken. And the uproar that we hear in this Divine Liturgy is precisely that shaking. What is happening? Christ is descending into the realm of the death-god to smash him down with the doors.
And then He renders His sentence against all the fallen gods, the rebellious, demonic angels: “I have said: You are gods and all of you the sons of the most High. / But you like men shall die: and shall fall like one of the princes.” They were made for immortality, for sharing the rule of God in obedience to Him. But because of their disobedience, they will die like men. That does not mean they will cease to exist any more than death means that human beings cease to exist when they die. But they will be cut off from Life Himself, to exist in a chaotic, insane state, outside of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And then the psalm completes: “Arise, O God, judge thou the earth; for thou shalt inherit among all the nations.” What does this mean? It means that in His invasion of the Underworld and His rising from the dead, He renders justice to the whole of creation.
And then, the authority that had been given over to angels, to govern men on His behalf, is taken back as His inheritance among all the nations. As Christ said when He was about to ascend into Heaven, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That is, it was taken back and returned to where it belonged.
His next words to His disciples then placed them in the authority taken from the fallen gods, as He said to them to go into all the world and preach this gospel, this gospel of the victory of Christ over His enemies, this gospel of exorcism of demons, of forgiveness of sins, and of the defeat of death itself in the Underworld. He has trampled down the god of death by His own death, and He has drawn us through death and into life.
The preaching of the gospel that now begins with the rising of Christ from the dead is the participation of the Church in the angelic authority given now to the heirs of Abraham, given now to the faithful, that they would be blessed as the stars of heaven are blessed, that they would sing as the stars sang at the creation of the world, that by adoption, by grace, by death, by resurrection, and by love they would become the sons of God.
To Jesus Christ Who has defeated death himself, Who has called the righteous out of the power of death and has placed them in the heavens as angelic stars, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.