The icon most often displayed in Orthodox churches and homes during the Paschal season portrays Christ’s attack on hell. “You have descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ,” the Orthodox Church sings at Pascha, “and have broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and like Jonah after three days in the whale, You have risen from the tomb.” (see: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/8386667037/ )
In the icon, we see Christ standing on the shattered doors of hell, a kingdom that had been ruled by the prince of darkness, Satan. The figures to the left and right of Christ being raised from their tombs are none other than Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race, while behind them are gathered kings, prophets and other righteous ancestors: David and Solomon, Moses, Daniel, Zechariah and John the Baptist. The scene implies that all who have died were the inmates of this sealed empire. Beneath the gates of hell, we see Satan, warden of hell, plummeting into an abyss of darkness amidst broken locks and useless keys.
The icon provides an image for the most radical reversal one can imagine — the undoing of the kingdom of death, and thus the undoing of all that keeps us in a state of fear. After all, it’s death we fear and spend our lives resisting and delaying. It’s fear of death that stands in the way of actually living. Dig away at other fears and sooner or later we discover the grave. Day by day we come closer to death, traveling at a speed we can only guess. Sooner or later we die. Period. End of story. Whatever delays we manage to arrange, the event is certain. Death has the last word, while the final power of those in charge is the power to kill. Displease the powerful and you may pay with one’s life like so many martyrs.
But in fact Christ’s resurrection, and in its wake our own, is the ultimate surprise ending. The gates that seemed capable of imprisoning the dead throughout eternity are reduced to ruins. Christ — in a radiant robe and surrounded by a mandorla, a symbol of glory and shining truth — arrives among the dead both as conqueror and rescuer. In some versions of the icon, there is a scroll in his left hand. When the inscription is shown, it reads, “The record of Adam is torn up, the power of darkness is shattered.”
Think of the blame that Adam and Eve, our mysterious, mythical ancestors, have been made to bear in many interpretations of the Book of Genesis. The usual conclusion is that all would be well in the world had it not been for their disastrous choices in the Garden of Eden. Behind every child dead of starvation, behind every corpse left on the battlefields, behind every murder and rape, there is that original sin committed by our first parents — a prmary earthquake in the moral order that is still reverberating in every human life.
Surely they are the very last people who could possibly become the object of Christ’s mercy. If anyone belongs in hell, surely it must be Adam and Eve. And yet they are the first people Christ rescues from the tomb.
Adam and Eve — so much like us! We too are constantly drawn to forbidden fruit hanging from the tree of knowledge. We too make dreadful choices. We too are eager to blame others while exonerating ourselves. In fact we live in a culture in which blame has become an industry keeping thousands of lawyers occupied full time, while accusing fingers point toward parents, spouses, teachers, neighbors, pastors, bosses, doctors, Hollywood, the mass media, big business, the government… It’s nothing new. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake.
Yet Adam and Eve are raised by their creator’s hands from their tombs. It is an action of breathtaking love and mercy.
The icon doesn’t explain Christ’s mercy or justify it.
If the radical failure of Adam and Eve in Paradise represents the primary catastrophe in human history, from which all alienation, division and cruelty has its source, surely this image of divine mercy toward them must be a source of consolation to everyone living in hope of God’s mercy. “Delivered from her chains,” comments an ancient Paschal hymn, “Eve cries out in her joy.” And so may we.
It is only after his conquest of hell that Christ returns to his despairing disciples. “When He had freed those who were bound from the beginning of time,” wrote St. John of Damascus, “Christ returned from among the dead, having opened for us the way of resurrection.”
The icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell can be linked with an ongoing pilgrimage to move away from a fear-centered life. We live in what is often a terrifying world. Being fearful is a reasonable state to be in. A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread.
We can easily get ourselves into a paralyzing state of fear that is truly hellish. The icon reminds us that Christ can enter not just some other hell but the hell we happen to be in, grab us by the hands and lift us out of our tombs.
It’s the pilgrimage of all pilgrimages: being rescued from the kingdom of fear and death by the hands of the risen Christ.
[“The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life” by Jim Forest, Orbis Books]
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