Today Christ lies in the tomb. This day we celebrate a creation restored and the afterlife overturned. The bitter events of the crucifixion are behind us and we await the victory of Pascha day. Yet Christ’s sabbath rest in the tomb is not mere idleness. He visits the place of the dead. Death results from the Fall in Eden. The whole created order is distorted by the Fall of Man. This works backwards in time as well as forwards. However it works, we inherit a mortal frame. Death of the body is now part of our genetic make-up. The reality of bodily death is a fact. But we await, look and hope for the reuniting of the body and soul. In the coming new world we shall be whole again. We already have a foretaste of that life in the here and now. Christ, as fully human and fully divine faced human death at its most powerful extreme. He also underwent the separation of soul and body.
There is a prayer about this said by the clergy during censing:
“In the grave with the body, in Hades with the soul as God, in paradise with the thief and on the throne whilst thou O Christ uncircumscribed filling all things.”
Christ descended to the dead. He went to Sheol, Hades the place of the dead. This is that land long forgotten:
“Return, O Lord, and deliver my soul. Save me because of your mercy. There is no remembrance of you in death and in Hades who will give thanks to you?” [Psalm 6:4]
In Sheol souls were not face-to-face with God. It would seem they only had a shadowy existence. We do not know how they experienced time, if at all. However, we are told that Christ went to them as well and offered the Good News.
“He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” [1 Peter 3:19]
The separation of those in Hades from God was thereby removed, as indeed is ours by the powerful action of God. Christ preached to all and the curse of death was lifted in the resurrection. The prophets Moses, David and Solomon are often shown in the icon of Pascha, the Descent to Hades, as is the Forerunner, St John the Baptist. Adam and Eve are shown being vigorously lifted up out of their tombs with outstretched hands. In Christ all mankind is freed from the dominion of death.
Below Christ in the icon we see the gates of hell broken down and with them the bolts and shackles that held the doors firmly shut and the prisoners enslaved. The power of death is broken. The resurrection icon not only shows Christ’s resurrection but also the resurrection of mankind.
Facing grave trials, bereavement especially, one comes face-to-face with what one truly believes. Various things are said by many well-meaning people. They tend to dismiss the body for instance as “nothing more important than an old pair of pyjamas” to quote someone I knew when his father died. Against this the Orthodox insist that death is a result of the Fall. It is not part of God’s great plan for us. We know that we also shall rise. The shackles of death are of no consequence in the long-term. What we face is the life of glorification and fellowship with God.
“(Christ) died for all that they who live should not henceforth live unto themselves but unto Him who died for them and rose again.” [2 Corinthians 5:15]
So, we have no cause for anything but joy. We can participate in the life of God. When we participate in the liturgy we partake in the life of God. The body of Christ on the altar is joined to the body of Christ in the nave. We truly participate in the life of Paradise, although we may not always see it. As John Chrysostom exclaims in his sermon for Pascha:
“Forgiveness has shone forth from the grave. No one need fear death for the Saviour’s death as freed us.”
So, free at last, we shall one day reach our true home in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. There we shall be resurrected and we shall see the realisation of St Paul’s prayer in all its truth and richness… “that God may be all in all”. [1 Corinthians 15:28]