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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).

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We celebrated ‘Tenebrae’ this morning in the college chapel, which consisted of the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday, with an additional longer reading, combined with Morning Prayer.

Detail from the 12th century Byzantine mosaic of the Last Judgement in Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello. The photographer writes: 'I love the way in which keys are scattered around the broken doors of hell, as though there have been many unsuccessful attempts to open them previously'.

Many of you have probably seen the remarkable Second Reading for Holy Saturday before, about the Lord’s descent into hell. Just in case you haven’t, here it is. I don’t know the author, or anything about it’s background. It’s just entitled ‘a reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday’. If you do know anything else about it, please do post in the comment box.

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`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 healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

The final prayer reads:

Almighty, ever-living God, whose Only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with him in baptism, may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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How do you represent evil in literature, art or film? Is it possible to get beyond the surface effects of evil to the malevolent heart, where choices are made and the fundamental moral drama is played out?

I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. (No, I haven’t seen the film yet – I was desperate to read the novel before seeing the film, so I’d come at it fresh and without knowing the ending.) It’s meant to be a study of evil, in the person of Pinkie, the teenage protagonist – but I’m not sure it works. [Minor plot spoilers follow]

Brighton Rock

He certainly does some terrible things, but he comes across to me more like a trapped animal than a moral agent. He’s heartless, he knows he’s doing wrong, but he doesn’t really know what the moral alternatives are as practical possibilities. He’s a bully, living off the strategies he learnt in the school playground. He’s constantly reacting, often with much cunning and forethought, but only once or twice does an almost metaphysical abyss open up before him, and the feint possibility of freedom become a reality.

This is from J.M. Coetzee’s introduction to the Vintage edition:

[In the person of Ida Arnold Greene creates] a stout ideological antagonist to the Catholic axis of Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie and Rose believe in Good and Evil; Ida believes in more down-to-earth Right and Wrong, in law and order, though with a bit of fun on the side. Pinkie and Rose believe in salvation and damnation, particularly the latter; in Ida the religious impulse is tamed, trivialised, and confined to the ouija board.

In the scenes in which Ida, full of motherly concern, tries to wean Rose away from her demonic lover, we see the rudiments of two world-views, the one eschatological, the other secular and materialist, uncomprehendingly confronting each other…

Rose’s faith in her lover never wavers. To the end she identifies Ida, not Pinkie, as the subtle seducer, the evil one. ‘She ought to be damned… She doesn’t know about love.’ If the worst comes to the worst, she would rather suffer in hell with Pinkie than be saved with Ida.

This last point is the most interesting aspect of the book: how love (however ambiguous) might bring you to want to be with someone in the depths of hell, rather than deny that love and lose them. But, in hell, wouldn’t you lose each other too? And are you really doing someone a favour by joining them on that road? Rose is worried that by choosing something ‘right’ (in Ida’s terms) it would be a betrayal of her relationship with Pinkie, of her faithfulness to him. It reminds me of Simone Weil, and her worry that to accept baptism would alienate her from all those who were not baptised.

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Dante and Sartre made guest appearances on Celebrity Big Brother at the beginning of the week. The layout and decor of the new Big Brother house are inspired, say the producers, by the writings of these luminaries:

Executive Producer Shirley Jones today revealed that the whole series has been inspired by Dante’s Inferno including the decor of the house itself.

She said: “The famous line from Dante’s Inferno is ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, which has inspired much of what we have done to the house, particularly the entrance which is dark and cavernous with flaming walls. When the celebrities arrive in the house on Sunday night they will definitely wonder what is in store for them, it looks incredibly different from previous years”.

In the living area the Dante’s Inferno theme continues with gilded panels, black walls and furniture in rich reds and dark wood. There are some luxurious touches too such as faux fur pelts draped over the sofas, cushions emblazoned with diamante skulls and ornate wall sconces illuminating macabre sculptures.

Jones continued “As well as Dante we have been hugely influenced by Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’, and the house reflects this. Whilst the flames and dark colours might look a bit hellish to some, sometimes your actual hell is the people you’re with so we have removed some of the doors to make everything more open plan, there are very few areas to go to if someone needs to grab five minutes of peace and quiet.”

Just to set the record straight: Sartre didn’t put forward the idea that ‘hell is others’ as a philosophical thesis – he put these words into the mouth of one of his characters in the play Huis Clos. In isolation, this line, which has haunted Sartre, gives the impression that he hated other people and believed that human beings would be happiest cut off from all company. This is nonsense. In the drama of the play, and in the context of his whole philosophy, Sartre is saying something quite different.

In his view, a recurring temptation we face as human beings in society is the desire to live solely in order to please others, to live up to the expectations that others impose on us – expectations that we willingly accept and internalise. So our whole life can become a charade, wearing a mask, doing a dance before the gaze of others. It’s an analysis of the psychology of fame. The more we succeed in living up to their expectations, the happier we seem to be – but it is a trap, and we end up losing our freedom, we become defined by the demands that other people have imposed on us. This is living in ‘bad faith’; there is a lack of authenticity, a lack of honesty. Another more traditional word to describe this human characteristic would be ‘vanity’. So Sartre is not quite as radical or novel as he might appear.

Berlin press pack by Downing Street.

A press pack in Berlin

Sartre doesn’t think that the answer is to escape from all human relationships and responsibilities, or to do what we please without any regard for the opinion of others. This is just pure selfishness – which Sartre never advocated. He thinks we should be more authentic; we should take responsibility for our actions and not pretend that we are completely defined by the external pressures that are put upon us; we should develop relationships, as it were, out of love and freedom and not because of a dysfunctional need to take on a certain appearance in the eyes of others.

I’m not defending his whole outlook here. But there is some truth in this suggestion that we can get trapped in the image of ourselves that we see reflected back to us from others.

The opposite of vanity, one could say, would be a kind of self-possession, an ease with others, a freedom to love without worrying about how that love was being perceived.

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