Pentecost and the Liturgy of Hades

pentecostkneelPascha (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.

And so the battle forms a significant part of the liturgical effort of the Church. The boldness of the third prayer is quite striking (this is the first portion):

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.

Please forgive my editing of a very long prayer, thank you, St. Basil.

I can recall the first time I offered this prayer in my priesthood. 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.

I will extend this meditation to moments of practicality that are bound to meet all of us in coming days and weeks. Confronted by an enemy (whether self-proclaimed or only imagined) the temptation is to join in battle. The arguement begins, whether in earnest or only in your head. The day begins to slip away as the darkness of resentment and the remains of unresolved conflict abide. You have entered Hades whether you know it or not. You have entered the place that would fain leave our planet a smoldering moonscape. It is now time to pray.

Christ’s descent into Hades signals a change for us. Hades is not the place for our fear, but the place that should fear us. And so we pray. The noise in our heads is a temptation, a feeble effort that suggests the power of Hades. It is, however, a power that is broken and can be trampled underfoot.

We can love. As we love we can pray. As we pray Hades trembles until its bars fall and the dead arise.

God give us grace.

20 comments:

  1. Two years ago, during the pandemic, one of my dearest friends died and I could not attend her funeral. I read the Akathist for the Repose of the Departed for her. I also keep a list of family, friends, and neighbors who have died and about two years ago, began reading this Akathist for them every Saturday morning, and really for all the dead from the beginning to right now. It has become a very important part of my devotional life and keeps my death present before my eyes and in my heart. I think you were the one that mentioned this Akathist years ago. It is a small way to carry an assault on Hades. Thank you for reminding us of this need.

  2. Having seen the reality of God’s destruction of death, knowing that the prayers are not just hope but deep reality, I am deeply confused by the fact that so many still worship death and darkness in search of God-like power to destroy others. Sometimes it even seems to work real evil on and in people.

  3. The first service I attended in our Orthodox Christian Church 17 years ago now, was the Pentecost service with kneeling vespers following Divine Liturgy immediately and I knew that this is where we were meant to worship and how we were meant to worship. (We were looking for another Christian denomination to raise our children in, and leaving the Episcopal Church) I continue to thank God for these prayers and know that He is with us, everywhere present and filling ALL things! Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this blog post, Glory to God for All Things!

  4. Do you think that the fervor which was so strong at Pascha now wanes because people return to their lives and see the “last enemy” of death still reigning in the world? Their loved ones continue to die and the power of death causes sin to abound. The victory was proclaimed, but the soldiers find the enemy still wreaking havoc on their own lives and others. How do people actually cross the bridge from this world of death to one of life and make the victory of Pascha a living reality?

  5. Aaron,
    I do not think that “making the victory of Pascha a living reality” to be a legitimate question. It already is a living reality and does not require that we “make it” to be so. So, I might rather ask, “How do we learn to more steadily access that living reality in our daily lives?” It’s an important shift in how we might think about it.

    “How do we learn to receive communion?” might be another way to ask the question. We are given prayer, repentance, and all the tools of the Christian life (keeping the commandments, etc.) as the normative means for that reception (which is our life). Much of this falls within the teaching ministry of the Church (both individually and corporately) and will very much vary according to the capacity of those who are learning.

    I am of a slow, patient temperament in such things – in that I distrust short-cuts, excessive zeal, and gimmicks. St. Paul describes our life as a “race,” and I assume he had in mind a long-distance race and not a sprint.

    I know of no better description of the patient Christian life than the 55 maxims of Fr. Thomas Hopko. What he describes differs profoundly from the common pattern of the modern life – though it’s completely within the competency of anyone who reads it.

    Imagine oneself in an arranged marriage (the most common form of marriage throughout most of history). How would I come to “love” my spouse? There would be normal daily duties in that relationship that would need to be attended to regardless of how we felt. So, that’s first. In time, proper attention and openness of the heart can make possible the transformation of that merely voluntary relationship into the proper depths of love and experience.

    The same, I think, is true of our relationship with Christ – Jesus Himself is the content of Pascha. We are in a relationship that was “arranged” in our Baptism. And, however much we might imagine otherwise, we largely had no clue what we were getting into. We do not yet “know” Him as we might, just as we do not yet know ourselves. And so it begins – day by day –

    I’ve been married for soon 47 years. Though I met and “chose” to marry, I really didn’t know what I was doing. It could just as easily have been an arranged marriage (because that’s how it really works as far as I can see). There’ve been times that I did it poorly – and even grew frustrated with myself and the whole thing. But time changes things. Today, I see that it has been the most important thing in my life – greater even than my priesthood. I could not be here had I not “been there” and everywhere in between across the years. But it is not lived at an imagined transcendent level. It is lived in its depths – which includes the willingness to enter into the patient suffering of love – and being taught, over time, what that truly is.

    When a couple is married, they are crowned. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the crowns are taken from them and placed on the altar. They are, if you will, “laid up for them in heaven.” Marriage, like all sacraments, is eschatological – the truth of it is revealed only in the end of all things.

    The same is true of our Baptism, our Communion, and our daily lives. We live our lives in hope – with a heart that is anchored in the hope that is laid up for us. And we live in patience. These things are repeated over and over in the Scriptures. There are “consolations” along the way. Moments, even days, in which the hope seems utterly tangible and present. There are also days that seem empty, where the hope is but a whisper. There are no techniques that preserve the former and prevent the latter. We live a “traditioned” existence – in which God gives us His life. I cannot “make” His life to be something that comes as a result of my actions. That path would soon lead to terrible delusion.

    Hope that some of that was helpful.

  6. Father, I have a boat load of stories that confirm every word you speak here, especially about marriages being arranged. I will leave it at that because most of them are not really mine to share or still too complicated in my head to articulate well.
    My brother has been married about the same amount of “time” as you and your wife. His marriage truly was arranged. It has been and continues to be a shining example to me of what a Christian marriage should be.
    God is good.

  7. Father, forgive my poor choice of words. Perhaps something more akin to “embrace” or “enter into” or “accept”would’ve been more appropriate. I didn’t mean it as something we solely do by our own efforts. Your examples are very helpful. I am interested in your thoughts on why people don’t seem to continue to embrace/accept the reality of Pascha. Is our memory really that short?

    I find especially interesting what you wrote at the end of the article about love and prayer. I think there’s a deep connection there between the two that perhaps you’re hinting at, which maybe you could unpack. In a sense, to truly pray is to love and to love is to pray. It’s an active movement out of one’s selfish, secluded self and to embrace the other. Therefore, to not pray is to choose not to love – to remain “isolated” and forget God’s great gift, which we don’t continue to actively receive.

  8. Aaron,
    Love is, indeed, key. And we do well to remember and consider that love is not always an ecstasy. Pascha is preceded by weeks of fasting and intense prayers (of a sort), and, then, the labors of Holy Week. So, it certainly comes with a wonderful sense of joy and happiness (perhaps a bit of relief), that the struggle has come to its great conclusion. It is, to a certain extent, something of a symbol (in the strongest sense) of our whole life.

    I think the rhythms of a person’s life are difficult to judge from the outside. Even love can be very quiet and hidden. The soul is complex.

  9. Thank you, Father Stephen, for your words.
    Christ has ascended from earth to heaven, taken humanity to His beloved Father, on this Feast of Pentecost, I’m grateful for the Lenten journey we took together.

  10. Aaron,
    I do not know how old you are, whether you are married, or whether you have children. So, I’m not sure of the nature of your experience with love (on that level). I have 4 children, now grown (the youngest is 31). I can say that in terms of this world, I have never loved anyone as intensely as I have my children (to which I now add my 5 grandchildren). They move my heart like nothing else. I think I remember how frightening it was with my first child – to discover how “uncontrollably” I loved her. It was such an intense vulnerability.

    What has mattered across the years, however, has not been those intense feelings, but probably something much more like utter steadfastness. The willingness to stand by them, even when upset or worried. To frighteningly commit them to the hands of God (as though I could have had control myself). I have always prayed intensely for their salvation (they are all believers), but I’ve also known that the fullness of that salvation is not something I will see until I see it from heaven – after I die. God willing they will all outlive me.

    By the same token, I have come to value steadfastness, patience, quiet endurance and trust far more in the course of a Christian life than any of the more intense experiences (though I’ve had my share and continue to do so).

    I find every Sunday, in particular, to be Pascha (even if we’re not singing Christ is Risen at the top of our lungs). I marvel at what I hold in my hands (the Body of Christ). At the same time, it just happens to be the case that some Sundays I’m pretty numb or distracted. But even on such days as that, I marvel that it is still the Body of Christ regardless of how I’m feeling. I trust (steadfastly, if possible) that God’s love for me in His Holy Pascha never wanes, never depends on me, never deserts me. In some ways, this means not taking myself (and my inner experience) so seriously.

    I recall in my first parish as a Deacon (Episcopal), I wondered out loud to the priest that I didn’t seem to love the people of the parish the way he did. He told me, “They’re not yours. You’ll leave after your Deacon’s year. When you have your own parish, the love will come.” He was right. My parishioners have been like my children (in a proper sense). You just love them. And you love them no matter how it’s feeling that day.

    I see this same kind of steadfastness in lots of people. It’s something that I think a priest should labor to nourish in his flock. St. Paul said to the Galatians, “I groan until Christ be formed in you.” I think this is what he was getting at.

    Just some thoughts…

  11. Father Stephen,
    I have been married almost 14 yrs, have six living children, and have buried one. Your thoughts resonate very much with me. Thank you for sharing them. I think the steadfastness you speak about is something that often goes unnoticed, but is extremely important. It’s a patient, enduring love that has the potential to bear great fruit. It’s not rooted in emotions or intense experiences, although those may and likely will come. This is a faith by which real transformation can occur, often quietly and unnoticed in the present, but made clear looking back. Yet the changes can only be made in the present. The present is all we really have.

    In my experience, the door to healing has come through prayer – prayer that is an entrance into and an acceptance of the present reality for all that it is, both within us and without (even coming to see no separation between the two). This humble and honest embrace of life has the ability to awaken in us a consciousness of ourself, others, and the ever-present God to which we were previously unaware. It’s a transformation that doesn’t deny the importance of the physical in favor of the spiritual or create a false duality between the two. Rather, it is a non-dual, wholistic realization of our entire person (body, emotions, mind, soul, and spirit). In the context of marriage and child-rearing, it’s a manifestation of the steadfast love you spoke about which can’t see yourself as separate from your spouse or children. This great gift which God has given us can take us out of our ego and bring us into an experiential participation in unconditional, God-like love. If we can manage to actualize this potential within ourself and our family (or whoever is closest to us), we can continue to expand ourself without end. This is change which can heal the world, but it starts quietly with ourself, living a life of faith that embraces the mundane and often messy details of the precious life which God has given us.

    Forgive me if you’ve felt any animosity from me or if I have offended you in any way by my comments. I don’t desire any such thing, but only an open and honest discussion. Your writings have been very helpful to me over the years.

  12. Aaron,
    Thank you for the information. It helps to a degree.

    I am not offended it what you have said, though your string on a previous post posed real problems viz the Crucified. But I wasn’t intending to rehash that conversation.

    Alll transformation comes as a gift from God. What makes for good prayer I’d ultimately only judged by God.

    Having said that, what you have said regarding acceptance of things as they are is, for me, encompassed within the contemplation of divine providence and should be normative for us. But I am leery not to suggest a method that promises particular results.

    It is best to pray and leave the results in the hands of God as well. But the abandonment of ourselves and all things to Gods providence is a salutary practice.

    Ultimately, we seek a transformation that is more than psychological….and this can only be possible as a gift. St Sophrony has much to say on this. I will add that too much results oriented talk about prayer can cause others to stumble. So, you’ll have noticed push back from me in my responses.

    I’m thankful that you’ve found my work to be of help.

  13. My wife and I declare this at the end of our morning prayers. Just prior, we say The Morning Prayer of Philaret of Moscow. He reposed in 1867:
    Oh Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your Holy Will. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to greet all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that Your Will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing other. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, and You, Yourself pray in me. ”

    I have been offering this prayer for decades. When really praying it, peace is always at hand often accompanied by tacit acknowledgement before God of my many sins.

    We close our prayers with the declaration: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

    Amen

  14. “[Hades] should fear us.” Yes! Having received the religious name Peter, I have frequently wondered how it came about that Christ’s promise to Saint Peter, that the “gates of Hades shall not prevail” against the Church has come to be interpreted (at least among many Catholics) defensively, as if these gates are somehow going to mobilize and attack the fortress of the Church. Clearly, Jesus is saying that the ‘indestructible gates’ cannot withstand His (and our) descent against them.

    Thank you for your work, Father.

  15. Father, Bless!
    There is a warmth that floods my heart when I sing “O Heavenly King” on the Feast of Pentecost. Yes, it is an ending of the Paschal season, but the beginning of another time and I notice such a joy in the coming of the Comforter. Your posts, along with those that comment, have offered a shared experience of connection throughout the years.

    But I have for some time felt a level of isolation in the actual world – the physical place I live and pray, with so few like minded souls interested in sharing in the loving and patient work of communing with our Lord. I’m divorced, my children are grown and gone, and apart from a few Orthodox friends that also rejoice as they manage their own busy lives, I find myself quite alone. Many churches limit (or eliminate) services for one reason or another, with the mindset of “who will come” as a guiding principle. As I say this I also know that my feebleness would prevent me from engaging in all the services of the Church. My mind even wandered for the one prayer offered up by the priest to mark the Feast of Pentecost. But that doesn’t seem to be a good reason to limit services. It is a complicated situation, our worship in the United States (and probably around the world), and I fear my ability to commune with others will continue to wane as churches only open their doors to the faithful on Sunday mornings. I wonder and pray about what I am to do and would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

  16. Cindy,
    Our circumstance really do vary from place to place (and time to time). Our modern patterns of living (how we construct our cities, our suburbs, etc.) have been and are driven almost exclusively by financial/economic concerns. A difficulty with growing older is that we cease to be of much interest to the economy. We discover that the dynamic economic models that built our cities and neighborhoods often leave us abandoned.

    For example, in my town, there is no public transportation. If you don’t drive, you’re isolated.

    Our Churches, for lack of any better model, have been built to serve the population and its settlement patterns. This has left many parishes in decline as the economic world leaves them behind and moves on to the next suburb, or whatever. We have not built our lives around villages or proper cities – and have not thought how a settlement of people should live for hundreds of years as a healthy, whole place.

    That’s all to say that there are many things and forces beyond our control and largely beyond the control of others. It also means that there are forms of suffering (isolation, loneliness, etc.) that are more common among us than anybody intended, but are nonetheless there.

    That being the case, we give thought to how we can endure the suffering that is set before us.

    What you are describing (“Churches only open their doors on Sunday mornings”) is an isolated thing. It happens in some places and not in others. It’s not a general pattern. If I had a word of encouragement – it would be to take advantage of the opportunities you have to be with others, to pray with others, and not to think much about the opportunities you don’t have. If possible, work at giving thanks in the midst of whatever is going on. God is able to sustain even in the worst of circumstances. And pray for everyone, everywhere.

  17. Thank you for your words, Father. I do indeed have many opportunities to engage in, and I’ve been finding myself offering thanks for the smallest things in my day. Your advice is indeed encouraging.

  18. My dear Orthodox friends, this is unrelated to the post but could you keep my family and I in special prayers for a more clear direction and closemess to the Lord in our family? My husband feels the same need. I plan on spending some quiet time before the Lord Thursday morning. I feel troubled in my soul and not sure why exactly. I long to draw close to Him most of all. Thank you.

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