Pascha (Easter) comes with a great note of joy in the Christian world. Christ is risen from the dead and our hearts rejoice. That joy begins to wane as the days pass. Our lives settle back down to the mundane tasks at hand. After 40 days, the Church marks the Feast of the Ascension, often attended by only a handful of the faithful (Rome has more-or-less moved the Ascension to a Sunday to make it easier). Some excitement returns with the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, which conveniently falls on a Sunday making its observance easier in a too-busy-to-notice world. Lost in all of this, however, is a subtext (perhaps it is the main text).
It is a liturgical practice that in Orthodoxy begins some weeks before Great Lent. It is a frontal assault on Hades.
The traditional name for these celebrations is “Soul Saturdays.” They are celebrations of the Divine Liturgy on Saturday mornings offered for the souls of the departed. Most of the Saturdays in Great Lent have them. They make a fitting prelude for Holy Week and Pascha. At Pascha, Christ Himself “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life.” This is the Great and Holy Sabbath – the true and Great Soul Saturday. This is the great theme of Pascha itself. Christ’s Resurrection is, strangely, not so much about Christ as it is about Christ’s action. Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death. Orthodoxy views Christ’s Holy Week, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection as one unending, uninterrupted assault on Hades. This is the great mystery of Pascha – the destruction of death and Hades. Death is the “last enemy.” Those who forget this are like soldiers who have forgotten the purpose of the war in which they fight.
The cycle of prayers assaulting Hades reaches a climax on the day of Pentecost. On the evening of that Sunday, the faithful gather for Vespers. During that service, they kneel for the first time since Pascha. And in that kneeling, the Church teaches them the boldness of prayer, the cry of human hearts for God’s solace and relief. Three lengthy prayers are offered, the third of which completes and fulfills the prayers that began so many weeks before in the Soul Saturdays:
Priest: O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, coeternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! … Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them. (edited for length)
I can recall the first time in my priesthood that I offered this prayer. I had a copy in front of me, but had not read it before the service, nor had I ever heard it. I trembled as I offered the words above…astounded by their boldness. I had never heard such boldness before the Throne of God within the walls of the Church itself. It is also a reminder of the weakness and infirmity of the legal imagery of salvation. The legal view requires of God that He be the enforcer of Hades. To such a prayer He could only reply: “I cannot grant such things because of my Justice!”
The Descent of Christ into Hades itself demonstrates God’s willingness towards our salvation. And the prayer’s imagery here reveals God’s strength:
Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.
On the Saturday before Pentecost, some 49 days after Pascha, the Church offers the last in the cycle of Soul Saturdays. And on Pentecost itself, and now on bended knee, it boldly goes where only Christ has gone before in victory. As was proclaimed in the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom:
Christ is risen! And not one of the dead is left in the grave, for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
A beloved friend from my youth who has sustained a boldness in Christ through many trials has said that he doesn’t like to pray “safe” prayers. On this holy day, we leave the safety of our fear and dare to walk where Christ has gone before.