On Great and Holy Pascha, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It’s the most important event of all time, an event of universal and cosmic significance whereby death is destroyed and all of Creation is renewed. Christ, having taken on our nature through the Incarnation, was crucified. The earth quaked, the veil of the temple was torn in two, and darkness came upon all the land. But in Hades, the abode of the dead, everlasting Light was just now shining through every crevice and in every corner as Christ made His triumphant entrance. The moment is captured in the icon of the Resurrection, also known as Christ’s Descent into Hades, or Sheol. While Hades is thought of as a spiritual reality and mode of being after death, its true nature is beyond the grasp of our perception and intellectual powers. Thus, the iconographer uses forms and images that we’re familiar with in order to convey the action and meaning of the event. Through the icon we understand that Christ’s death, entrance into Hades, and Resurrection are all actual events which occurred in the context of our time and yet also in a manner transforming and transcending space and time.
“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Him flee from before His face.” (Psalm 67)
While Christ’s body remained entombed, His soul descended into Hades to fight for the souls of the dead. We arrive at the moment of victory. Christ stands triumphantly in the center of the icon and is surrounded by the uncreated light which shines forth into the darkest regions of Hades. His white robe flows upward to show that He was descending. Beneath Him are the gates of Hades, the iron and bars rent asunder by the lightening flash of His divinity. The locks and keys are scattered in the chasm below to emphasize that the gates of Hades will remain open for eternity. Death, personified by a figure bound and cast into the deep abyss, no longer has dominion over mankind. Among the dead, we see Adam the first formed man, humbly stretching forth his arm from the tomb. Christ grabs Adam by the wrist and pulls him up from the open sepulcher. Through this action we are reminded that just as Christ pulled Adam up to bestow upon him everlasting life, so too does Christ’s resurrection open a path to salvation for all mankind. Eve stands behind Adam as do several other righteous figures from the Old Testament such as Abel with a shepherd’s staff in hand, Abraham, and Moses. The prophet Isaiah is also witness to the event that he had once foretold, “The dead shall rise up, and those in the tomb shall arise. Those in the earth shall be glad, for your dew is healing for them, but the land of the ungodly shall come to an end.” (Isaiah 26: 19) King David and Solomon stand on the opposite side along with Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist. One of the living apostles is also portrayed to emphasize that Christ’s redemption transcends space and time. This is further emphasized with the angels seen in the heavens above, holding the Cross, the spear that pierced Christ’s side, and the hyssop branch and sponge that was used to give Him sour wine to drink. These were once the tools of torture but they are now seen as the instruments of victory. It is said that Hades groaned and was embittered when it met Christ below. We see this in the icon and hear of it through the hymns of the church, like in the Theotokion that is chanted prior to the Great Doxology of Matins:
“You are supremely blessed, O Virgin Theotokos. For through Him who from you became incarnate was Hades taken prisoner, and Adam has been summoned back; the curse has been neutralized, and Eve has been liberated; death has been put to death, and we have been brought to life. Therefore extolling we cry out: O Christ our God, You are blessed, for so was Your good pleasure. Glory to You!”
Christ’s very being and entire life transfigures and transforms the entire cosmos in the promise of new creation. Through His life giving Resurrection, we celebrate the defeat of death and the victory that came through the Cross. Christ has broken the bondage of sin, and through faith, now offers us restoration, transformation, and eternal life. Christ has risen! Truly He has risen!
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” (1 Col. 15: 20-22)
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas