The joyous event of the glorious Resurrection is expressed in Orthodox Iconography with the Descent of the Lord into Hades. To redeem humanity from the consequences of the disobedience and fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, it was necessary that the Lord Jesus Christ experience everything possible as a human including death. Jesus descended to Hades upon His death on the Cross. It is there that Adam and Eve were confined after their deaths and with them all who followed in the sleep of death awaiting the salvation of the Lord. The Lord Jesus Christ is depicted with bright garments within a transparent and interrupted circular ʺgloryʺ that follows the contour of the cross‐engraved crown of light around His head. The ʺgloryʺ is faintly noticeable above His head. The Lord, having descended into Hades with authority, is seen with a firm footing and a powerful stance upon the gates of Hades, fallen in the shape of an X. In His left hand, Christ is holding a huge Cross, the symbol of victory. With His right hand (where ʺthe mark of the nailsʺ is obvious, as well as on His feet) Christ is raising out of the cave of Hades the forefather Adam, who symbolizes the human race, with a vigorous and unilateral motion. As a result of this movement, the garment of the triumphant Christ is shown as being blown upwards by the wind. Together with Adam, Eve also stretches forth her arms in a beseeching manner.
We see that Christ has pulled down the gates of hell which he now steps on. His stunning white garments contrast with the gaping black hole at the center of the earth. Death, or Satan, lies shackled in the darkness. Just when Satan thought he had won, he finds himself trampled down and defeated by the Author of Life, Himself. Also rescued with Adam and Eve are all the Old Testament saints. Representing them, on the left, wearing crowns and royal robes are King David and King Solomon. Between them and Christ is John the Baptist. As he did while alive John points out the arrival of the Savior. On the right in the icon is Abel, holding a shepherd’s staff. It was the shepherd Abel, a son of Adam, who sacrificed his best lambs to God. He himself was killed by his jealous brother Cain and thus became the first to taste death. Here he meets Jesus, the victor over death. With Abel is Moses who, like John the Baptist, is one of the first to recognize the Lord and so gestures toward Him. In addition, we find many Old Testament figures including the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. At the top of the trapezoid composition two angels are bending over behind the craggy peaks and are sharing in the triumph of the cosmic and eschatological victory of the Theanthropos Lord.
One aspect of the icon that is easily overlooked is the position of the hands of Christ and of Adam. Try as he might, man can never ascend to the same level of God. As righteous and pure as man can be, his nature as a creature can never come close to that of God, his Creator. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God entered human history as the Son of Man through His Incarnation and united His Divine Nature with our Human Nature. The Redemption of Adam (and by extension, all humanity) is noted in this icon by Christ grasping Adam by the wrist and pulling him out of the tomb. Adam’s hand is limp and does not dare touch his Creator and God, and according to the flesh, his descendant. Christ initiates and restores the communion between God.
The service on Holy Saturday morning, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful liturgies of the Paschal cycle as it recounts the magnificence and benevolence of God. Beginning with a series of readings prophesying the Resurrection of the Lord and continuing with the Hymn of the Three Youths and the refrain “Bless the Lord and exalt him unto the ages” we commemorate Christ’s decent into Hades and releasing the souls of all who were held captive by death. The moving and awe inspiring midnight service distribution of the Light in the darkened Church originally comes to us from the Church of Jerusalem. It is important to remember that through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Paradise was closed to us. Through sin, death came into the world and that man was subject to death. Upon the death of all from the time of Adam and Eve to the moment of Christʺs voluntary death on the cross, and His descent into Hades all the souls of those who lived were ʺheld captive by deathʺ in that place called Hades. Hades, not to be confused with Hell, was a jail of sorts for souls – a place where they were held prisoner. When Jesus Christ died on the Cross, Hades accepted His soul thinking that it was capturing the soul of a man – only to find out that it had encountered the Author of Life Himself. The hymns of the Church tell us that ʺHades lets out a groanʺ as the doors to Hades are torn asunder and the symbolic ʺlocks and chainsʺ used to imprison the souls are tossed aside and rendered useless as Christ raises all the righteous dead, freeing them from the power of Death. This event is commemorated in spectacular fashion, on Holy Saturday morning as the priest chants the verse from Psalm 81/82 while scattering bay leaves (the symbol of victory) throughout the church. “Arise, O God, and be judge of the earth, for You shall inherit all nations.” At Saint George, we participate in that moment by the ringing of bells (which we have brought to the Church) as the priest scatters the symbols of victory that remain throughout the Bright Week.