Theophany and the Gates of Hades

prison8For an Orthodox priest, the services of the Church involve many “comings and goings.” Part of any service takes place within the altar area, which is usually enclosed by an iconostasis, a wall on which icons are hung. The wall does not truly separate one area of the Church from another so much as it marks one area off from another – the space of the Church is itself an icon. But within these spaces, the priest (and deacon) move back and forth. Going out from the altar and entering back in to the altar. Each exit and entrance has its own meaning within the context of the service. I often think of the Psalm verse, “May the Lord bless your going and your coming in…” With this action, for me, has come an increased awareness of doors and entrances within Scripture. For the doors of the altar bear a relationship with the various “doors” in Scripture.

I have often thought about the meditation attached to the closed doors of the altar early in the service of Vespers. The priest stands before them, head bowed, and prays. I have been told that the closed doors represent the closed doors of paradise, with the priest standing outside them, like Adam, weeping for his sins. It is always a poignant thought.

The gates of paradise always have a strange double quality to them. When they are open the world becomes heaven. When they are closed all becomes Hades. It is the gates of Hades that Christ promises will not prevail against the Church.

I have also noted over the years that most people seem to concern themselves with the “larger” gates of Hades. They want to know who goes there, who stays there and why, and how they can avoid the entire thing. Some people seem to be experts on Hades and Hell.

There is a far more intimate and immediate question concerning Hades’ gates. This is the question of its gates within the heart. For the human heart is like a microcosm of all things. There we can find both the gate of paradise and the gate of Hades. I’m convinced that if we do not first find paradise within our heart then we will never know it otherwise. Salvation may be eternal, but it is also immediate.

To stand before the closed gates of paradise within the heart and weep is to begin to pray.

Tonight I served the Vigil for the Feast of Theophany (Christ’s Baptism). The richness of the feast is beyond description. The texts that are sung are among the most theologically profound that I know. It is difficult to serve the feast and not insist that the service stop at points – that we might stand in silent wonder.

Christ at the Jordan is Christ before the gates of paradise (and Hades). In many icons of Christ’s Baptism, the gates of Hades lie beneath His feet (it almost looks like He is surfing), with snakes sticking their heads out from beneath. These snakes are the “dragons who lurked there,” mentioned in Psalm 74.

The Lord refashions broken Adam in the streams of the Jordan.
And He smashes the heads of dragons lurking there.
The Lord does this, the King of the ages;
for He has been glorified.
From the St. Cosmas’ Canon of Matins for the feast 

St. John of Damascus offers a dazzling array of images on Christ’s Baptism in his Canon for the feast. In the seventh ode he compares Christ’s Baptism with His salvation of the Three Young Men in the fiery furnace:

He stilled the furnace’s towering flame
when it encircled the pious Youths,
and He burned the heads of the dragons in the waters.
With the dew of the Spirit He washes away
all the blindness born of sin.

By changing the fierce Assyrian flame to dew,
You stilled the fire that prefigured You;
For now You have clothed Yourself in water, O Christ,
as a flame that burns the evil trickster hidden in its depths,
who entices us to the path of destruction.

For a variety of reasons, Theophany is perhaps my favorite feast (excluding Pascha itself). Years ago I did not know what to make of Christ’s Baptism. Now, I hardly know what it does not include. It is a feast of doors – the smashing of one set and the opening of another. I pray that the doors in my heart are opened – or smashed – whatever seems best and most needed.

 

13 comments:

  1. Wow Fr. Stephen. Just have to say that has blessed me so much with wisdom and insight. Thank you so much for your wonderful words.

  2. Father,
    the (admittedly difficult even in the original Homeric Greek) iambic cannon of Theophany -as well as the one of Pentecost- are indeed rich and deep with an unfathomable quality to them, each concentrating on something different… [the “smashing of the doors” and the “not departing but entering in the soul” respectively are my favourite themes]

    The door smashing of Theophany is obviously evocative of what St Macarius says in his homilies on the descent into Hades:

    When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered the souls from hell and prise, how He descended into hell performing that glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul. The same Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force’. And He shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison… Is it difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart and to call out dead Adam from there?…

  3. In spite of my not, as yet, having any knowledge of Orthodox feasts, I find this very beautiful to consider. Thank you, Father!

  4. Father Stephen,
    I was able to attend the service last night, and wanted to learn more about the feast. Aside from reading the liturgy, are there any books you’d recommend?
    Thanks!
    Anna

  5. Father,

    I’ve experienced that feeling of wanting to slow or stop the service of many of the Feasts of the Church, so as to have a little more time for the beauty of the texts to penetrate.

    Now I’m in the choir and it’s even worse–things go by so fast my head spins. Someone said those who sing pray twice, but, as a long time fellow member of the choir said to me recently, she sometimes wonders if she even prays once during a service. What I’ve resorted to is bringing home the service books after the fact, and reading through everything again. The best thing would be to do this before the feast, but then I’d have to own the service books, and that’s a subject that still confuses me about Orthodoxy. Aren’t there lots of service books and sources for the Orthodox liturgies? I also have the idea, mistaken or not, that I’d go broke trying to buy them all…..

    Be that as it may, this was my first Theophany in the Church. I sometimes wonder, when I’m immersed in the richness of the Orthodox liturgies, if I was ever even a Christian before. There was so much missing. I don’t say this to denigrate or bad mouth the other traditions I came from, I only say it in wonder….

    I made sure to read a bit about the feast beforehand. I was struck by the idea that the feast celebrates the renewal and (re?) sanctification of creation and it’s purification in Christ. That’s one of those things you want to stand in wonder of. To me, it’s a feast of great joy. Not withstanding that I know what you meant when you said “To stand before the closed gates of paradise within the heart and weep is to begin to pray.” That must come first. Or maybe at the same time.

  6. Fr. Freeman, each time I read a new reflection, my heart aches more deeply for a treasure that for me has been hidden in a history book, but now has become vividly real and alive!

  7. Laurie,
    When I was first ordained and doing the services for the first several years, I often wondered if I had given up prayer by becoming a priest. The “next thing” was always a distraction. Time has helped. I often seize on a word or phrase or a paragraph and work at entering it. As the priest, I also have the privilege of slowing some things down (like what I myself am saying). But it is often the choir singing that I pay most attention to (as I catch my breath).

    I was particularly struck this morning, listening to the text for the blessing of the waters (a prayer written by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem – who also wrote the life of St. Mary of Egypt), by how profoundly concerned it was with creation. And the greater blessing was that it was written some 1500 years before the present silly creation issues. I say silly because they are mostly just political and not properly theological. St. Sophronius is free of all that.

  8. I, too, was struck by the prayers for the Great Blessing of the Water this morning. It was as if I had never heard them before. What a glorious feast!

  9. Yes, Father, I expect time is going to help. Meanwhile, finding a word or paragraph or phrase to hang onto sounds like a good idea. I think I read something by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom about entering the prayers of the liturgy this way, but I can”t remember where I read it. I think he was answering someone’s question about reciting the prayers wthout attention, and without realizing what one was saying.

    At Vespers last Saturday, the liturgy slowed itself down really, when the choir sang over and over “For God is with us.” That gave me time for a moment of clarity, a moment when I grasped, for an instant, the immensity of those five words.

  10. Laurie,
    Many of the texts can be found online e.g. at Antioch.org under liturgical texts. That way you don’t have to break the bank!

  11. Laurie,

    you can find some of Met. Anthony’s writings here – http://www.mitras.ru/eng/ though I’m afraid in English you can find only the sermons.

    His texts on prayer helped me a lot, his advice is based on great insights in the inner (chaotic) dynamics of the modern men.

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