The Descent of Christ into Hades

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.

God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory.

At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying:

‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

‘For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

‘See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

‘I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in Paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The Bridal Chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.’

Christ’s descent into Hades, is what we commemorate at the vesperal liturgy on the morning of Holy Saturday. The descent of Christ into Hades, although only mentioned briefly in the New Testament, is confirmed as a mystery of cosmic significance by the hymnology and iconography of the early Church. This event is narrated most magnificently by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis in his famous Holy Saturday homily: “To what place does He go? What is the means, what is the intent of His descent into Hades?”

St Epiphanius explains that Christ goes to Hades with the intention of seeking out and liberating his lost sheep Adam and Eve. He then continues: “But hurry, let us descend with Him, let us dance with Him and rejoice with Him, for He who is by nature Friend of man goes with great gallantry to lead forth them that have been held captive from ages past.”

The descent of Christ’s soul into Hades is understood as a real event, which took place while the body of Jesus slept in the tomb. St Epiphanius goes on to portray the legions of the heavenly hosts arrayed for battle before the dread gates of Hades. The devil falls powerless before the invincible might of the God-man, and the angelic hosts, led by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, tear down the battlements and rout the forces of the enemy as their Master advances before them. The climax of the victory is the Lord’s arrival at the deepest subterranean dungeon, where his ancestor according to the flesh lies captive.

Adam recognises the sound of his Creator’s footsteps approaching, and as Christ bursts into the prison bearing the Cross as His weapon of victory, Adam cries out with joy to his fellow captives: “My Lord be with you all!” Full of tenderness, Christ replies to him, “And with your spirit,” before grasping the hand of His beloved child, leading him up from death into everlasting life, together with all the righteous souls who believe in His glorious Resurrection.