The Descension into Hades – The Orthodox Liturgical Response

16th century Russian icon of the Descent into ...

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Today Hades tearfully sighs: “Would that I had not received him who was born of Mary, for he came to me and destroyed my power; he broke my bronze gates, and being God, delivered the souls I had been holding captive.”

O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!

Today Hades groans: “My power has vanished. I received one who died as mortals die, but I could not hold him; with him and through him I lost those over which I had ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began, and lo, he raises them all up with him!”

O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!

• Holy Saturday Orthodox Liturgy
A Triddum Sourcebook, p. 66

HT

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God is Dead

de: Gottvater mit dem Leichnam Christi, Nieder...

de: Gottvater mit dem Leichnam Christi, Niederlande (?), 15. Jh.; Lindenholz, alte Fassung en: God the Father with the Dead Christ, Netherlands (?), 15th century, limewood, old colours Skulpturensammlung (Inv. 8079, erworben 1918, Geschenk James Simon), Bode-Museum, Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…Suddenly all of them standing around the gallows know it: he is gone. Immeasurable emptiness (not solitude) streams forth from the hanging body. Nothing but this fantastic emptiness is any longer at work here. The world with its shape has perished; it tore like a curtain from top to bottom, without making a sound. It fainted away, turned to dust, burst like a bubble. There is nothing more but nothingness itself.

The world is dead.

Love is dead.

God is dead.

Everything that was, was a dream dreamt by no one. The present is all past. The future is nothing. The hand has disappeared from the clock’s face. No more struggle between love and hate, between life and death. Both have been equalized, and love’s emptying out has become the emptiness of hell. One has penetrated the other perfectly. The nadir has reached the zenith: nirvana.

Was that lightning?

Was the form of a Heart visible in the boundless void for a flash as the sky was rent, drifting in the whirlwind through the worldless chaos, driven like a leaf?

Or was it winged, propelled and directed by its own invisible wings, standing as lone survivor between the soulless heavens and the perished earth?

Chaos. Beyond heaven and hell. Shapeless nothingness behind the bounds of creation.

Is that God?

God died on the Cross.

Is that death?

No dead are to be seen.

Is it the end?

Nothing that ends is any longer there.

Is it the beginning?

The beginning of what? In the beginning was the Word. What kind of word? What incomprehensible, formless, meaningless word? But look: What is this light glimmer that wavers and begins to take form in the endless void? It has neither content nor contour.

A nameless thing, more solitary than God, it emerges out of pure emptiness. It is no one. It is anterior to everything. Is it the beginning? It is small and undefined as a drop. Perhaps it is water. But it does not flow. It is not water. It is thicker, more opaque, more viscous than water. It is also not blood, for blood is red, blood is alive, blood has a loud human speech. This is neither water nor blood. It is older than both, a chaotic drop.

Slowly, slowly, unbelievably slowly the drop begins to quicken. We do not know whether this movement is infinite fatigue at death’s extremity or the first beginning – of what?

Quiet, quiet! Hold the breath of your thoughts! It’s still much too early in the day to think of hope. The seed is still much too weak to start whispering about love. But look there: it is indeed moving, a weak, viscous flow. It’s still much too early to speak of a wellspring.

It trickles, lost in the chaos, directionless, without gravity. But more copiously now. A wellspring in the chaos. It leaps out of pure nothingness, it leaps out of itself.

It is not the beginning of God, who eternally and mightily brings himself into existence as Life and Love and triune Bliss.

It is not the beginning of creation, which gently and in slumber slips out of the Creator’s hands.

It is a beginning without parallel, as if Life were arising from Death, as if weariness (already such weariness as no amount of sleep could ever dispel) and the uttermost decay of power were melting at creation’s outer edge, were beginning to flow, because flowing is perhaps a sign and a likeness of weariness which can no longer contain itself, because everything that is strong and solid must in the end dissolve into water. But hadn’t it – in the beginning – also been born from water? And is this wellspring in the chaos, this trickling weariness, not the beginning of a new creation?

The magic of Holy Saturday.

The chaotic fountain remains directionless. Could this be the residue of the Son’s love which, poured out to the last when every vessel cracked and the old world perished, is now making a path for itself to the Father through the glooms of nought?

Or, in spite of it all, is this love trickling on in impotence, unconsciously, laboriously, towards a new creation that does not yet even exist, a creation which is still to be lifted up and given shape? Is it a protoplasm producing itself in the beginning, the first seed of the New Heaven and the New Earth?

The spring leaps up even more plenteously. To be sure, it flows out of a wound and is like the blossom and fruit of a wound; like a tree it sprouts up from this wound. But the wound no longer causes pain. The suffering has been left far behind as the past origin and previous source of today’s wellspring.

What is poured out here is no longer a present suffering, but a suffering that has been concluded–no longer now a sacrificing love, but a love sacrificed.

Only the wound is there: gaping, the great open gate, the chaos, the nothingness out of which the wellspring leaps forth. Never again will this gate be shut. Just as the first creation arose ever anew out of sheer nothingness, so, too, this second world – still unborn, still caught up in its first rising – will have its sole origin in this wound, which is never to close again.

In the future, all shape must arise out of this gaping void, all wholeness must draw its strength from the creating wound.

High-vaulted triumphal Gate of Life! Armored in gold, armies of graces stream out of you with fiery lances. Deep-dug Fountain of Life! Wave upon wave gushes out of you inexhaustible, ever-flowing, billows of water and blood baptizing the heathen hearts, comforting the yearning souls, rushing over the deserts of guilt, enriching over-abundantly, overflowing every heart that receives it, far surpassing every desire.

–Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988, Heart of the World)

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An Ancient Homily – The Lord’s descent into the underworld

Good shepherd

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The Lord’s descent into the underworld

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all”. Christ answered him: “And with your spirit”. He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light”.

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden. See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

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 has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

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“Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast” – Charles Wesley

Oft times, Methodists like to pretend that the theology we inherited from John and Charles is that of a symbol — yet, in reading the stanzas, we see sacrificial language, mimicking the high sacramentarianism of the Catho-Anglicans.

This hymn was part of our Maundy Thursday service, and I having never heard it before, listened as intensely as one does to an new lover.

(I note the singers of this version left out some pertinent parts…)

Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.

Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.

Come, all ye souls by sin oppressed,
Ye restless wanderers after rest;
Ye poor, and maimed, and sick, and blind,
In Christ a hearty welcome find.

Come, and partake the Gospel feast;
Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of your God,
And eat His flesh, and drink His blood!

You vagrant souls, on you I call;
(O that my voice could reach you all!)
You all may now be justified,
You all may live, for Christ hath died.

My message as from God receive;
Ye all may come to Christ and live.
O let His love your hearts constrain,
Nor permit Him to die in vain.

His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to His love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.

See Him set forth before your eyes,
That precious, bleeding Sacrifice!
His offered benefits embrace,
And freely now be saved by grace.

This is the time, no more delay!
This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call,
And live for Him Who died for all.

Benedict XVI on the Existential Side of the Cross

On Good Friday, I thought this quote from the Pope Emeritus’ book was fitting:

In all that we have said so far, it is clear that not only has a theological interpretation of the Cross has been given, together with an interpretation, based on the Cross, of the fundamental Christian sacraments and Christian worship, but also that existential dimension is involved: What does this mean for me? What does it mean for my path as a human being? The incarnate obedience of Christ is presented as an open space into which we are admitted and through which our lives find a new context. The mystery of the Cross does not simply confront us; rather, it draws us in and gives new value to our life.

This existential aspect of the new concept of worship and and sacrifice appears with particular clarity in the twelfth chapter of the Letter of the Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren by the mercies of God, to present you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [word-like] worship” (v. 1) ….

Three words

“It is finished”. Found in the gospel of John (John 19:30), these three simple words changed everything. It is fair though to ask the question what exactly is finished? We can look around our cities and towns and see violence and addiction, poverty and need. We can watch the news and see all manner of evil across the globe. We can look into our lives and see all the mistakes and misdeeds. So what exactly is finished really?

The answer is the grip of sin. No, not sin itself, but the grip that sin has over humanity. That is what is finished. The grip that sin had on our lives, the power of sin to condemn us and force us into an endless cycle of guilt then sacrifice, then wash, rinse and repeat is finished. The excuse we had to commit sins as well. That is what is finished. God, knowing that mankind desperately needed both a savior and a sovereign, sent one son to be both. God, understanding that the world was in such need of hope, sent the Blessed Hope, a perfect hope, so that we could rise from the fear, the anger and the depression of a fallen kingdom and become a part of The Perfect Kingdom of God. Yet we look around and can only help but ask, “what is finished?” We look around and see not what God intended, but instead what man has made.

Yet still, it is finished. The central message of Good Friday. The reminder of the price that was paid for us. The worth that we have to God and Christ. The promise that the final sacrifice has been made. What went so wrong? If it indeed is finished, if the grip that sin had is no longer on the faithful, why are things as they are? The problem is not that sin still has a grip on mankind, the problem is that mankind has not lost it’s grip on sin. It is finished- the power of sin is finished- but unfortunately we are not finished with sin.

Christ’s words “it is finished” is both a declaration that sin no longer has  grip on us and a reminder that our grip on sin should be finished as well. It is an encouragement that sin can be overcome, and a reminder that we can overcome it through the power of the cross. It is the central message of Good Friday. It is finished, so that we can begin.

I Shall Be Released

With a few very slight modifications, Bob Dylan’s song I Shall Be Released (1967) is an appropriate song for Good Friday.

They say everything can be replaced,
yet every distance is not near,
so I forgive every face
of every man who put me here.

I see my light come shining
from the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

They say every man needs protection
they say every man must fall.
I swear I see my reflection
someplace high above this wall.

Hanging next to me on this lonely hill
is a man who swears he’s not to blame.
All day long I hear him shout so loud,
crying out that he was framed.

(this is also posted at my blog…)

O Sacred Head Now Wounded #goodfriday

  1. O sacred Head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down, Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, Thine only crown. O sacred Head, what glory, What bliss, till now was Thine! Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

  2. Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance, Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee And flee before Thy glance. How art thou pale with anguish, With sore abuse and scorn! How doth Thy visage languish That once was bright as morn!

  3. Now from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color, once so fair; From Thy red lips is banished The splendor that was there. Grim Death, with cruel rigor, Hath robbed Thee of Thy life; Thus Thou has lost Thy vigor, Thy strength, in this sad strife.

  4. My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me, For it was my transgression Which brought this woe on thee. I cast me down before Thee, Wrath were my rightful lot; Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

  5. My Shepherd, now receive me; My Guardian, own me Thine. Great blessings Thou didst give me, O Source of gifts divine! Thy lips have often fed me With words of truth and love, Thy Spirit oft hath led me To heavenly joys above.

  6. Here I will stand beside Thee, From Thee I will not part; O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart, When soul and body languish In death’s cold, cruel grasp, Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

  7. The joy can ne’er be spoken, Above all joys beside, When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide. O Lord of life, desiring Thy glory now to see, Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

  8. What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend, For this, Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? Oh, make me thine forever! And should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee.

  9. My Savior, be Thou near me When death is at my door; Then let Thy presence cheer me, Forsake me nevermore! When soul and body languish, Oh, leave me not alone, But take away mine anguish By virtue of Thine own!

  10. Be Thou my Consolation, My Shield when I must die; Remind me of Thy Passion When my last hour draws nigh. Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, Upon Thy cross shall dwell, My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well!

Notes: Hymn #172 from The Handbook to The Lutheran Hymnal Text: Is. 50: 6 Author: Paul Gerhardt Based on the Latin poem “Salve caput cruentatum” By Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153, asc. Translated by: composite Titled: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden Composer: Hans L. Hassier, 1601 Tune: Herzlich tut mich. This text was converted to ascii format for Project Wittenberg by Cindy A. Beesley and is in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text.

H’T

#GoodFriday – Catherine of Siena – The Grand Tournament

Saint Catherine of Siena. From chiesa di Santa...

Saint Catherine of Siena. From chiesa di Santa Maria del Rosario in Prati, Roma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Word played life against death and death against life in tournament on the wood of the most holy cross so that by his death he destroyed our death, and to give us life he spent his own bodily life. With love, then, he has so drawn us and with the kindness so conquered our malice that every heart should be won over. For a person can shown no greater love (he said so himself) than to give his or her life for a friend. And if he praises the love that gives one’s life for a friend, what shall we say of the consummate blazing love that gave his life for his enemy? For through sin we had become God’s enemies. Oh, gentle loving Word, with love you recovered your little sheep, and with love gave them life. You brought them back to the fold by restoring to them the grace they had lost.” – Catherine of Siena, What Drew Matthew to Jesus

The imagery is more Justin than Anselm, which is why I like it.

Do you even Council of Trent, bro?

From time to time, Protestants will stick their foot in their mouth about Catholic theology. From “worshipping Mary” to “works righteousness,” the more Evangelical/Reformed you are, the worse off you are going to be in describing basic Catholic teachings.

For instance, Tim Challies has recently decided to garner some attention by declaring Pope Francis a false teacher, placing him next to the likes of Arius (and early Baptist) and Ellen G. White (a major mover and shaker in 7th Day Adventism). No, I wish I was kidding, but this type of unfounded vitriol is actually taking place.

Sounding just like the guy who wrote Two Babylons or any of the Jack Chick tracts, Challies proceeds to not only lambast the Pope but resurrects Protestant hysteria about Rome. In attempts to use flash-pan rhetoric to underscore his point, but his John Birch-style language will only reach the ears of those who have already decided Rome is the devil incarnate, the whore of Babylon.

However, there are two nice rejoinders. The first is by Francis Beckwith. This one is intentional and directed against Challies, but nicely. The second is found in the essay by Michael Barber in the book to your right (published last year). Not only do both of these resources seek to counter Challies’ anti-Catholic bigotry, but they explain in nice detail the Catholic view on justification and works. Needless to say, I lean to this side. Perhaps it is because I am currently a Wesleyan, or perhaps because I recognize what real biblical theology looks like. Regardless, I do know what theological ignorance looks like.

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