In the teaching of the Church, the Descent into Hell is indissolubly connected with the Redemption. Since Adam was dead, the abasement of the Saviour, who had assumed his nature, had to reach the same depths to which Adam had descended. In other words, the descent into hell represents the very limits of Christ’s degradation and, at the same time, the beginning of His glory. Although the Evangelists say nothing of this mysterious event, Apostle Peter speaks of it, both in his Divinely-inspired words on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii, 14-39), and in the third chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter iii, 19). “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. Christ’s victory over hell, the deliverance of Adam and of the righteous men of the Old Testament is the main theme of the Divine Service of Great Saturday; it runs through all the Easter service and is inseparable from the glorification of Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh. This theme is, as it were, interwoven with the theme of the Resurrection. “Thou hast descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ, and hast broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and, like Jonah after three days inside the whale, Thou has risen from the tomb.”

Following the texts of the divine services, the icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual, transcendental reality of the Resurrection – the descent of our Lord’s soul into hell – and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. In harmony with the meaning of the event, the action in the icon takes place in the very depths of the earth, in hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the centre of the icon, standing out sharply by his posture and colours, is the Saviour. The author of the Easter canon, St. John of Damascus, says “Although Christ died as a man and His holy soul departed from His pure body, His Divinity remained inseparable from both – I mean body and soul.” Therefore He appears in hell not as its captive, but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of those imprisoned therein; not as a slave but as the Master of life. He is depicted in the icon with a radiant halo, symbol of glory, usually of various shades of blue, and often spangled with stars round the outer edge and pierced with rays issuing from Him. His garments are no longer those in which He is portrayed during His service on earth. They are of a golden-yellow hue, made luminous throughout by thin golden rays (“assiste”) painted upon them. The darkness of hell is filled by the light of these Divine rays – the light of glory of Him Who being God-Man, descended therein. It is already the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of the coming Easter. The Saviour tramples underfoot the two crossed leaves of hell’s doors, that He has pulled down. On many icons, below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen the repellent, cast down figure of the prince of darkness, Satan. In later icons are seen here also a number of varied details:- the power of hell destroyed – broken chains with which angels are now binding Satan, keys, nails and so forth. In His left hand Christ holds a scroll – symbol of the preaching of the Resurrection in hell, in accordance with the words of Apostle Peter. Sometimes, instead of the scroll He holds a cross, no longer the shameful instrument of punishment, by the symbol of victory over death. Having torn asunder the bonds of hell by His omnipotence, with His right hand Christ raises Adam from the grave (following Adam, our ancestress Eve rises with hands joined in prayer); that is, He frees Adam’s soul and with it the souls of all those who wait for His coming with faith. This is why, to the right and left of this scene, are shown two groups of Old Testament saints, with prophets at their head. On the left are king David and king Solomon in royal robes and crowns, and behind them John the Forerunner; on the right – Moses with the tablets of the Law in his hand. Seeing the Saviour descended into hell, they at once recognise Him and are pointing out to others Him of Whom they had prophesied and Whose coming they had foretold.

The descent into hell was the last step made by Christ on the way of His abasement. By the very fact of “descending into the abyss of the earth” He opened to us the access to heaven. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of mankind from slavery to him who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, He laid the foundation of a new life for those who have united with Christ into a new reborn mankind. Thus the spiritual raising of Adam is represented in the icon of the Descent into Hell as a symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first-fruit of which was the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although this icon expresses the meaning of the event commemorated on Great Saturday and is brought out for worship on that day, it is, and is called, an Easter icon, as a prefiguration of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and therefore of the future resurrection of the dead.

Leonid Ouspensky, “The Resurrection,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 187-188.


We do not know if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every one will follow Him to the eschatological Heavenly Kingdom when He will become ‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire human race.

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), “Christ the Conqueror of Hell – The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions”

I know that I quoted this once before, but it seems particularly apt at this time!



What more does one need to say, especially after not having had that much sleep last night? A joyous Pascha to all!

Raising Lazarus

Lazarus Saturday has a very special place in the liturgical calendar. It is not included in the forty days of  Lenten penitence; it is not included in the harrowing days of Holy Week – which are counted from the Monday to the Friday. Together with Palm Sunday, it forms a short and joyous prelude to the days of grief which follow. A topographical link unites it to Palm Sunday: Bethany is the place of Lazarus’s resurrection, and it is also the point of departure for Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Lazarus’s resurrection, which this Saturday commemorates, is an even that, as we shall see, carries a very deep meaning. It is mysteriously linked to the resurrection of Christ himself; in relation to that event, it is like prophecy in action. One could say that Lazarus raised from the dead is shown to us, at the threshold of the Easter feasts, as the precursor of Jesus Christ triumphant over death, in the same way that, on the threshold of Epiphany, John when he baptised was the precursor of the Messiah who was about to be revealed.

Father Lev Gillet, The Year of Grace of the Lord135.

…in this way, He gloriously accomplished our salvation and fulfilled the promise made to the patriarchs and dissolved the old disobedience – the Son of God become the Son of David and the Son of Abraham: for, in accomplishing and recapitulating these things in Himself, in order to obtain life for us, “the Word of God became flesh” by the economy of the Virgin, in order to undo death and to vivify man, for we were in the prison of sin, we who have become sinners and fallen under [the power of] death. Rich in mercy was God the Father: He sent the creative Word, who, coming to save us, was in the same place and situation as we were when we lost life, breaking the bonds of the prison; and His light appeared and dispelled the darkness of the the prison, and sanctified our birth and abolished death, loosening the same bonds by which we were trapped. And He demonstrated the resurrection, becoming Himself “the firstborn from the dead,” and raising in Himself fallen man, raising [him] above to the highest heaven, to the right hand of the glory of the Father, as God had promised, by the prophets, saying, “I will raise up the fallen tabernacle of David,” that is, the flesh [descended] from David: and our Lord Jesus Christ truly accomplished this, gloriously achieving our salvation, that He might truly raise us up, saving us for the Father.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, On the Apostolic Preaching, 37.

It’s rather late to wish people a blessed Pascha, but Pascha is not yet over, and I’m afraid that I have been occupied with things other than blogging, so “Christ is Risen!” Although I have been neglecting Saint Irenaeus, I love this quote which resonates with so much in the texts that we sang last weekend. Last Easter I said that the longer I am Orthodox the more I realise the truth of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern’s statement that “The church choir is a chair of theology.” And I suspect that I will probably go on saying that for the rest of my life!

Finally, if anyone is interested, here is the Paschal troparion in Afrikaans (and Greek):

There’s a traditional story told from the early days of persecution in Russia that illustrates the theme of Paschal victory. An atheist lecturer came to a village, and all the inhabitants were assembled to listen to him. He explained to them at great length that there is no God, and he said at the end, “Are there any questions?” At the back of the audience the parish priest stood up and said, “I’d like to say something”. The atheist lecturer, sensing trouble, told him: “You must be very brief. I will only allow you half a minute.” “Oh,” said the priest, “I don’t need nearly as much time as that. What I wanted to say is this: “Christ is risen!” All the audience shouted back, “He is risen indeed.” Then the priest turned to the atheist lecturer with the words, “That’s all I wanted to say!” Such is our answer to the world’s misery: The risen Christ is victor over darkness and despair.

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, in the same lecture that I referred to in the previous post.

It is rather late to be wishing people a blessed Pascha, but the place where I spent it does not combine well with my internet connection – which is, probably, not such a bad thing! I did think of trying to post a video clip of the Liturgy in Afrikaans – having recently been given a new cell phone that has made me take some tentative steps out of total Ludditeism – but then realised that I’d left the phone’s charger at home, so that didn’t really work. In any case, a blessed Pascha to all. It’s the first year that I’ve celebrated the Orthodox services in a language I can understand, and the more I do that the more I realise the truth of Father Cyprian (Kern)’s words that “The church choir is a chair of theology.”

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about relations with evangelical Christians this last week, and I hope that what I say here will not be too offensive. (And I fear that my thoughts may also be somewhat rambling). I suppose that that is in large part because I seem to increasingly realise that what many, perhaps most, people in South Africa understand by Christianity is some version of evangelical Protestantism, even if they have rejected it or moved into some form of post-evangelical consciousness.

Yesterday, during coffee after Liturgy, a non-Orthodox woman present complained at how exclusive we Orthodox are. Admittedly, we had been reacting to certain things and I wondered whether we had been unfair. But others responded by pointing out, quite bluntly, that there really are fundamental differences between Orthodoxy and evangelical Protestantism. I could certainly relate to this as I had had a conversation with a colleague earlier in the week that had left me feeling that the differences are very great indeed. And yet I was also uncomfortable drawing the lines too sharply – after all, I have known thoughtful evangelicals and some things do need to be said with a certain nuance.


Thomas, when he touched the flesh, believed that he had touched God, saying, “My Lord and my God.” For they all confessed but one Christ, so as not to make him two. Do you therefore believe him? And do you believe in such a way that Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, both Only Begotten and firstborn, is both creator of all things and preserver of humanity and that the same person is framer of the whole world and afterward redeemer of humankind?

John Cassian, On the Incarnation of the Lord against Nestorius 6.19, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVb (InterVarsity Press, 200) 372-373.

With good reason, then, we are accustomed to have sacred meetings in churches on the eighth day. And, to adopt the language of allegory, as the idea necessarily demands, we indeed close the doors, but Christ still visits us and appears to us all, both invisibly as God and visibly in the body. He allows us to touch his holy flesh and gives it to us. For through the grace of God we are admitted to partake of the blessed Eucharist, receiving Christ into our hands, to the intent that we may firmly believe that he did in truth raise up the temple of his body. … Participation in the divine mysteries, in addition to filling us with divine blessedness, is a true confession and memorial of Christ’s dying and rising again for us and for our sake. Let us, therefore, after touching Christ’s body, avoid all unbelief in him as utter ruin and rather be found well grounded in the full assurance of faith.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 12.I, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVb (InterVarsity Press, 200) 369.

A blessed Pascha to all celebrating it today, and a blessed end of the Octave to the rest of us! (I’ve given up trying to work out precisely who follows what calendar by now).


… just as by having shared in the washing of regeneration He became “the first-born among many brethren,” and again by having made Himself the first-fruits of the resurrection, He obtains the name of the “first-born from the dead,” so having in all things the pre-eminence, after that “all old things,” as the apostle says, “have passed away,” He becomes the first-born of the new creation of men in Christ by the two-fold regeneration, alike that by Holy Baptism and that which is the consequence of the resurrection from the dead, becoming for us in both alike the Prince of Life, the first-fruits, the first-born. This first-born, then, hath also brethren, concerning whom He speaks to Mary, saying, “Go and tell My brethren, I go to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God .” In these words He sums up the whole aim of His dispensation as Man. For men revolted from God, and “served them which by nature were no gods,” and though being the children of God became attached to an evil father falsely so called. For this cause the mediator between God and man having assumed the first-fruits of all human nature, sends to His brethren the announcement of Himself not in His divine character, but in that which He shares with us, saying, “I am departing in order to make by My own self that true Father, from whom you were separated, to be your Father, and by My own self to make that true God from whom you had revolted to be your God, for by that first-fruits which I have assumed, I am in Myself presenting all humanity to its God and Father.”

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 2.8.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa is not one of those authors who provide easy soundbites – and it would perhaps help to have a more recent translation, although reading him in Dutch is even more tortuous! – but I can’t think of anyone who I would rather read on the Resurrection!

A very blessed Easter to all those who celebrate it today!

And a blessed Holy Week to those beginning it.

Shortly after Easter I began reading an article by Sarah Coakley entitled “‘Not With the Eye Only’: The Resurrection, Epistemology and Gender” (motivated in part by the thought that if I read nothing other than Orthodox theologians I will have only myself to blame if I have a crisis of faith!). This proved to be a somewhat interrupted reading but I was reminded of it by the quote from St Leo the Great in my previous post, in which he speaks of the disciples needing time between the Resurrection and Ascension that Christ could “teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people” that He was truly risen.   

Coakley contrasts two modern approaches to the Resurrection, which she terms the ‘Lockean’ and the ‘Barthian’ approaches, and suggests that they are in fact two sides of the modernistic coin. The first, represented by theologians such as Pannenburg and Swinburne, seeks to supply empirical evidence for the historicity of the Resurrection. The second, represented by Barth and his followers, seeks by contrast to remove faith in the Resurrection of Christ from any historical scrutiny. Coakley suggests that neither of these approaches do justice to the New Testament texts and notes that “It is especially the narratives that chart a change of epistemological response that are noteworthy here, or else indicate the possibility of simultaneous and different responses to the same event (such that some vital shift is again required for recognition of the risen Christ to take place.”

Coakley draws on the doctrine of the spiritual senses of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in her goal of seeking the epistemic conditions for “seeing the risen Christ today, a possibility that much modern Western theology has either despaired of completely, or reductively demythologised.” This doctrine, with its somewhat different emphases in Origen and Gregory – the body receives a more positive role in Gregory – is concerned with “the transformed sensibilities of those being progressively re-born in the likeness of the Son.” Coakley also – rather tentatively – discerns a similar emphasis Wittgenstein in which he suggests differing levels of faith and a growth in spiritual and moral perception. Such an approach is often also identified with “the feminine” although it is worth noting that Coakley avoids an essentialist reading of this.


I find Coakley’s discussion of the spiritual senses in Origen, and especially in Saint Gregory, stimulating, and also helpful in providing an alternative to rather one-sided modern alternatives. Here the emphasis is placed not on immediate perception or purely cerebral knowledge, but on a lifetime’s work of purification and transformation. It also emphases the importance of practice, that we come to faith through the practices of faith, and that this encompasses the whole of life, including the body.  However, as with some of Coakley’s other work that I have read, I find it rather frustratingly suggestive and would like to see it fleshed out some more. And it reminds me of my own desire to pay more attention to Saint Gregory, and especially to his perspectives on asceticism. More ideas for investigation and reflection – I’m just not so sure when I’ll get to it! 

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