03 April 2010

The Moral & Cosmic Senses of Holy Saturday

I have realised that I am accustomed to viewing the saving events we have been celebrating with the Church the last few days from the perspective of their cosmic or theological significance. I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me that just as the Fathers interpret the events of the Old Testament according to a moral, ascetical sense, so such a sense can be found in the New Testament events of Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Consider, for instance, the following chapters of St Maximus the Confessor:

61. The Lord’s tomb is also to be seen as this world and as the heart of each believer. The linen cloths are the principles of sensible things along with the modes of virtue. The headcloth is the simple and undiversified knowledge of intelligible things along with the awareness of God one has acquired. Through these things we first know the Word who without them has an understanding which transcends them and is completely inaccessible to us.

62. Those who bury the Lord with honor will also behold him gloriously risen, while to all those who do not he is unseen. For he is no longer caught by those who lay snares, since having no longer the external covering by which he seemed to allow himself to be caught by those who wanted him, and by which he endured the Passion for the salvation of all.

63. The one who honorably buries the Lord will be held in veneration by all the friends of God, for he has kept him as is fitting from public display and from shame in not leaving him as a subject of blasphemy to the unbelievers who nailed him to the wood. Those who posted seals at the tomb and stationed soldiers before it are odious for this deed. They have reproached the risen Word as if he had been stolen, and bought off with money for betrayal the counterfeit disciple who represents the showy manner of virtue, as well as the soldiers for a slander against the risen Savior. The gnostic knows the meaning of these words; he is not unaware of how often the Lord is
crucified, is placed in the tomb, and rises again. He treats as dead the passionate thoughts which are posted next to the heart by the demons and which in tempations divide as garments the ways of moral comeliness. He penetrates as seals the images which press in on the soul and predispose it to sin. [1]

That said, I do find myself profoundly moved by the imagery of the more cosmic, theological account of these events, and particularly today, on Holy Saturday. Last year I posted one of my favourite pieces on this subject—a homily by St Epiphanius of Cyprus—and I refer all to that post again this year (and see as well this post, where I first used a couple of the quotes below). But I also came across a short, deceptively simple line from a Paschal epistle of His Grace, Archbishop Kyrill, of San Francisco and Western America (ROCOR). Speaking of the ‘rare, genuine, heavenly joy’ which ‘envelops the Orthodox soul during the Holy Paschal night’, His Grace observes, ‘The righteous souls in hades were illuminated with the light of this joy when the Victor over death destroyed the gates of hades.’ [2] Although His Grace is speaking of an internal event—the souls’ experience of joy—the use of the metaphor of ‘light’ to describe this joy creates a stunning visual of the brilliant light of Christ descending into the darkness of Hades.

But it seems to me that the light of Christ in Hades today is not merely metaphorical. St John of Damascus, to cite one example, uses the imagery of light to refer not to the effect of Christ’s descent, but to Christ Himself: ‘The deified soul went down into hell so that, just as the Sun of Justice rose upon those on earth, so also might the light shine upon them under the earth who were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death . . .’ [3]

Finally, it is interesting to note that the mediæval poet, William Langland, takes the light imagery a step further and refers to Christ Himself as a personified ‘light’ in Piers Plowman, ll. 315-21:

Eft the light bad unlouke, and Lucifer answerde,
‘Quis est iste?
What lord artow?’ quod Lucifer. The light soone seide,
‘Rex glorie,
The lord of myght and of mayn and alle manere vertues—
Dominus virtutum.
Dukes of this dymme place, anoon undo thise yates,
That Crist may come in, the Kynges sone of Hevene!’ [4]

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, tr. George Berthold (NY: Paulist, 1985), pp. 138-9; see also, The Philokalia, Vol. 2, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990), pp. 126-7.

[2] Archbishop Kyrill, ‘Paschal Epistle of His Grace, Archbishop Kyrill, of San Francisco & Western America—Christ is Risen!’, Orthodox Life, No. 3, 2005, p. 7.

[3] St John of Damascus, Writings, tr. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999), p. 334.

[4] William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A.V.C. Schmidt (London: J.M. Dent, 1989), p. 230.

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