When I was searching for images of the Harrowing of Hell on Flickr on Saturday, I came across this other image from a fresco in a church in Chora in Istanbul, together with a beautiful meditation by Jim Forest.
Here is the meditation on the picture, from his book Praying with Icons, revised edition, Orbis Books 2008.
The Paschal icon most often painted by iconographers and most frequently found in Orthodox churches and homes is the Anastasis — Christ’s Descent into Hell. It is also the first Paschal icon to be displayed in the center of the church each year, for it is venerated on Great and Holy Saturday.
The Apostles’ Creed proclaims that, before rising from the dead, Christ “descended into hell.” This is what the icon shows us. Beneath his feet, falling into a pit of darkness, are the broken gates of hell, often shown as a cruciform platform upholding the Savior. “You have descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ,” the 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.”
The gates that seemed capable of imprisoning the dead throughout eternity are, through Christ’s death on the cross, reduced to ruins. All others who have died have come to the land of death as captives, but Christ — in a white or golden robe and surrounded by a mandorla, a symbol of glory and radiant truth — comes 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.”) Beneath the gates of hell, Satan is seen falling into his kingdom of night and disconnection.
The principal figures to the left and right of Christ being raised from their tombs are the parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, while behind them are gathered kings, prophets and the righteous of Israel, among them David and Solomon, Moses, Daniel, Zechariah and John the Baptist.
Second only to Christ in the icon are Adam and Eve, our mysterious original ancestors — so much like us! We live in a culture in which we’re encouraged to find others to blame (and maybe sue) for our troubles — parents, teachers, neighbors, pastors, doctors, spouses, Hollywood, the mass media, big business, the government. But self-justification by finger pointing is nothing new — Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake.
While not forgetting that there is truly much wrong with the structures we live in and thus much that we need to resist and reform in this world, a very different way of looking at things is to focus, first of all, on our own failings.
One of the tougher prayers in the Orthodox Church is the prayer we recite before receiving Communion. It begins, “I believe, O Lord, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”
Perhaps no historian will be tempted to list me among the all-time great sinners, but such a prayer challenges me to stop making myself look relatively good by comparing myself to people who impress me as being much worse — a nice method for finding myself not guilty by reason of comparative innocence.
If the failure of Adam and Eve in Paradise represents the primary catastrophe in human history, the event at the roots of time 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 Saint 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 our prayer not to live a fear-driven life. We live in what is often a terrifying world. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of terrorists, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. 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. There were many elderly people who died in a heat wave in Chicago one summer simply because they didn’t dare leave their apartments in order to get to the air-conditioned shelters the city had provided. Anxious about being mugged, they died of fear.
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 particular hell we happen to be in, grab us by the hands, and lift us out of our tombs.
There is also a modern version of this image – less mystical, but where you can see the details more clearly. (For info about the picture see the Flickr site here).