“I am the Resurrection and the Life” (Part III)
The very death of the Incarnate reveals the resurrection of human nature (St. John of Damascus, De fide orth., 3.27; cf.Homil. in Magn. Sabbat., 29). “Today we keep the feast, for our Lord is nailed upon the Cross,” in the sharp phrase of St. John Chrysostom (In crucem et latronem, hom. 1).
The death on the Cross is a victory over death not only because it was followed by the Resurrection. It is itself the victory.
The Resurrection only reveals and sets forth the victory achieved on the Cross. It is already accomplished in the very falling asleep of the God-man. “Thou diest and quickenest me…” as St. Gregory of Nazianzus puts it: “He lays down His life, but He has the power to take it again; and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise… He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again. He goes down into Hades, but He brings up the souls” (Orat.41).
This mystery of the resurrecting Cross is commemorated especially on Good Saturday. It is the day of the Descent into Hell (Hades). And the Descent into Hades is already the Resurrection of the dead. By the very fact of His death Christ joins the company of the departed. It is the new extension of the Incarnation.
Hades is just the darkness and shadow of death, rather a place of mortal anguish than a place of penal torments, a dark “sheol,” a place of hopeless disembodiment and disincarnation, which was only scantily and dimly fore-illuminated by the slanting rays of the not-yet-risen Sun, by the hope and expectation yet unfulfilled. It was, as it were, a kind of ontological infirmity of the soul, which, in the separation of death, had lost the faculty of being the true entelechia of its own body, the helplessness of fallen and wounded nature. Not a “place” at all, but rather a spiritual state: “the spirits in prison” (I Pt. 3:19). It was into this prison, into this “Hell,” that the Lord and Savior descended. Amid the darkness of pale death shone the unquenchable light of Life, the Life Divine.
The “Descent into Hell” is the manifestation of Life amid the hopelessness of mortal dissolution, it is victory over death. “It was not from any natural weakness of the Word that dwelt in it that the body had died, but in order that in it death might be done away by the power of the Savior,” says St. Athanasius (De inc., 26). Good Saturday is more than Easter- Eve. It is the “Blessed Sabbath,”“Sanctum Sabbatum, requies Sabbati magni,” in the phrase of St. Ambrose.
“This is the Blessed Sabbath; this is the day of rest, whereon the Only-Begotten Son of God has rested from all His deeds” (Anthem, Vespers of Good Saturday, according to the Eastern rite). “I am the first and the last: I am He that liveth, and was dead: and behold, I am alive for ever more. Amen. And I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rev. 1: 17-18). The Christian “hope of immortality” is rooted in and secured by this victory of Christ, and not by any “natural” endowment. And it means also that this hope is rooted in a historical event, i.e., in a historical self-revelation of God, and not in any static disposition or constitution of human nature.
Adapted from Archpriest Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), The “Immortality” of the Soul, taken from Chapter VI, “Dimensions of Redemption,” of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption