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Sunday, 19 April 2020

Christ’s descent into the tenebrous realms of death

The service has already given us all the grace and joy, the perfection of the meaning of the Holy Days. We’ve been able to proceed liturgically, together with the Lord, from the garden at Gethsemane to the dread Golgotha and as far as the life-bearing and life-receiving Tomb, the alien tomb, in which He spent three days. I note this, the alien tomb, because the Lord came ‘to his home and his own kin did not receive him’, He came ‘to his own’ and ‘his own’ wouldn’t open the door to Him, so He remained, perforce, a stranger. A stranger to the world He’d created. Α stranger to his special, beloved people. A stranger till His death, when there wasn’t a single grave anywhere to receive Him, but that of the righteous Joseph of Arimathea, which welcomed Him.

Today the Lord has descended into the repositories of Hades. Saint Peter says he descended there ‘in order to preach to the spirits in prison’. He descended into the dour kingdom of death, the sombre reaches where there’s never a smile, to seek ‘all Adam’s kin’, the whole of humankind, from Adam and Eve down to those who had just died at that moment.

He descended into Hell and illumined it; and with His presence Hell became Paradise. The departed spirits of the righteous, who had been thirsting for His presence, with longing and with the desire for redemption, life, light and joy, leapt and rejoiced.

As much as the devil was embittered, together with his kingdom, at receiving within it the presence of the Victor of life, so much and more did the spirits of the departed Saints and Righteous rejoice, delight and exult, and they hastened to receive the life-giving embrace from Him Who descended into the depths of Hell to save the human race. And after Christ’s resurrection, ‘many bodies of the departed’ Saints arose and went into the holy city of Jerusalem and appeared to many. This means that God permitted a partial resurrection, not of all people but of some of the recently departed. In other words, people who had died a little while, a few years previously and who were still remembered by those who knew them. They may have died 20 years previously, but there still would have been people who remembered that Isaiah, that Jacob, that Zachariah, that Esther as a next-door neighbor, or as a friend, a grandfather, an uncle, a mother, father, or elder brother. They were easily recognized and God permitted this great miracle so as not to leave the slightest margin for doubt, not only regarding His own Resurrection, but of the general resurrection of all the dead.

I’d say that Christ isn’t much bothered, as far as He Himself is concerned, whether or not we believe in His resurrection. He’s got nothing to gain or lose either way. But He does care and is very much bothered if we don’t believe, because then we’re lost, we’re off the Vine. We’re withered branches and we’ll be burned in the fire of Hell that is never extinguished. That interests Him. That we shouldn’t be lost. Apart from that, whether we believe or not brings Him no glory nor deprives Him of any joy nor affects Him in any other way.

But we should believe in His own Resurrection and the expected resurrection of all of us at the Judgement Day, when the trumpet of the archangel will sound and summon us. And the earth will give back what it’s taken, the soil will render up the body, the fire whatever it’s consumed, the sea what it’s swallowed, the animals whatever they’ve torn to pieces. The bodies will be returned and, united to the soul, will be resurrected. Because, ‘once the soul has been born, it doesn’t die’. The death of the soul is something else.

The soul will never lose its sense of being, that is, of existence, but it has two possibilities. It can either feel its existence as ‘well-being’ or as ‘ill-being’. Saint Gregory Palamas says that everyone sees God. Everyone will see the uncreated Light of the Divinity, but half of them will rejoice, exult, celebrate and be delighted, and say: “How wonderful, how good, how pleasant, what a joy this is!’. The other half will burn, will suffer, will writhe and say: ‘Alas. What a disaster for me’. Can we perhaps understand something of this even from a distance? We’ve all of us had the flu or an infection at some time.

If we have one of these, we don’t go out in the sun because it’s too much for us. We start coughing and sneezing, our eyes water and we have a ‘nasal discharge’, mucous, we shiver and say: ‘For goodness’ sake. Let me get indoors where the sun won’t bother me’. The person next to us, who’s hale and hearty, is enjoying the sunshine: ‘Thank God for a fine day. Nice and sunny. Let’s sit here and warm our bones, take a breather and enjoy the day’.  It’s not the sun’s fault. It’s the same for one person and the next. It’s the fault of the flu. It’s the flu, the infection, that sends one of the two people inside. It’s the same here with sin, unrepentance, lack of faith and atheism. That’s the sickness that makes it impossible for people to bear the spiritual Sun of Righteousness and say ‘Oh dear, oh dear’, at the same time as others are saying ‘Isn’t this great?’

So we’ve venerated, we’ve followed the funeral of Life, we’ve sung the very lyrical Praises, which bear the firm stamp of folk poetry and, particularly- without a trace of chauvinism- of the Greek heart, Greek sensibility. All the other services very likely reflect all other national attitudes and psychologies. But the Praises have that sensitivity, that delicacy, which isn’t merely Mediterranean but more particularly Greek. That longing, that warmth of the Greek mother. When you hear Our Most Holy Lady lamenting her Son in the Praises, you can feel that it’s a Greek mother mourning her son. [The Greek poet Ioannis] Ritsos was influenced by this when he wrote the Epitafio; [Mikis] Theodorakis set it to music on the basis of the Praises, and so it goes on. It’s these hymns that play most hauntingly on the finest strings of the heart of the Greek Orthodox Christian.

So we’ve followed the formal cortege of the funeral of Life ‘in the hope of the resurrection’. Not His. We’re certain of that.  We celebrate that 365 days of the year. There’s no day when the Church forgets or doesn’t celebrate the Resurrection. It preached Christ Crucified, but also Resurrected from the dead.

We’ve already reached the temporary abeyance of Great Saturday. ‘Life slumbers’ and in the evening the bells will summon us to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. Let us pray that the Lord will also prepare our own resurrection, and that it will be a resurrection not unto judgment and condemnation but unto eternal life, reigning with Him, together the whole of the Holy Trinity, the Father without beginning and the co-eternal Holy Spirit; together with Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God; together with all the Saint, the protectors of the Monastery [Grigoriou, on the Holy Mountain], Saints Nicholas, Anastasia the Roman, and Gregory; the guardian angels of us all, together with all the angels and archangels.  And may we rejoice in that blessed joy of the Kingdom, where there is the ‘clear sound of those celebrating and crying ceaselessly: Lord, glory to you’.

Source. The periodical Ο Όσιος Γρηγόριος, no. 34.
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