18 April 2009

Holy Saturday—Christ's Descent Into Hades, Part 2

Continued from here.

Obviously, St Epiphanius is giving us a rather poetic version of the traditional teaching of the Fathers, drawn from Holy Scripture, of Christ’s decent into Hades. As Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) has pointed out in his wonderfully enlightening article on this theme, St John of Damascus summarises this teaching quite well in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 3:29 (St John of Damascus, Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation [Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999], p. 334):

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; so that, just as He had brought the good news of peace to those on earth, so also might He bring that of deliverance to captives and that of sight to the blind. And to them that believed He became a cause of eternal salvation, while to them that had not He became a refutation of unbelief, and so also to them in hell (cf. I Peter 3:19), ‘That to him every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth’ (Phil. 2:10). And thus, having loosed them that had been bound for ages, He came back again from the dead and made the resurrection possible for us.

Bishop Hilarion tells us that patristic references to the descent into Hades based on I Peter 3:18-21 begin already in the Apostolic Fathers (he mentions St Polycarp, St Ignatius, and Hermas), and beginning with Clement of Alexandria, he cites a series of patristic writings on the topic that lead to his conclusion that ‘the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable’. (By the way, I also wanted to mention that Ручьёв at Incendiarious has posted his translation of a great homily on the descent into Hades by St Innocent [Borisov], Archbishop of Kherson.)

But the English literary scholar, E.M.W. Tillyard (in Myth and the English Mind: From Piers Plowman to Edward Gibbon, Being the Clark Lectures, 1959-60 [NY: Collier, 1962]), looking at the same theme as it appears in English mediæval art and literature, traces most of the particulars of the various depictions of this event to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, where two resurrected persons—the sons of St Symeon the God-Receiver—provide eyewitness testimony of the events that took place in Hades (for two versions of ‘Christ’s Descent Into Hell’, see J.K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M.R. James [Oxford: Oxford U, 2005], pp. 185-204). Although it seems to me that depictions such as that of St Epiphanius and various references in the hymnography of the divine services (e.g., the Resurrectional Apolytikion in Tone 2, or the Eirmos of Ode 6 in the Paschal Canon) suggest some familiarity with the account in Nicodemus, far be it from me to comment on what authority, if any, the Fathers gave to that document (I would love to hear from anyone who knows more than I do about this issue!).

But it is certain that Nicodemus has been the primary source for some interesting accounts of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ in English literature. I shall quote from two that Tillyard mentions, noting in each a passage that has a parallel in the other (as well as in Nicodemus) and another passage that seems more unique. I say nothing of their consonance with Orthodox teaching, though, taking account of the divergences between East and West on this topic that Bishop Hilarion has noted, it seems to me that these particular passages present nothing that necessarily follows the Augustinian and Scholastic tradition in their departure from the Orthodox East.

Firstly, in the Chester play-cycle there is a whole play devoted to the theme of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, the author of which, Tillyard says, ‘clearly knew the Gospel of Nicodemus at first hand’ (p. 34). This seems evident in an echo of ‘Christ’s Descent Into Hell, Latin A’ (Elliott, p. 193), where there is a quotation of Ps. 23:7 LXX:

5(21). I. And while prince Satan and Hades said these things, one to another, there came suddenly a voice as of thunder, and a cry of spirits, ‘Lift up your gates, princes, and be lifted up you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.’

While the words in Nicodemus seem to be attributed to ‘spirits’, in the Chester play—ll. 177-80—they are placed in the mouth of our Lord Himself. Here is the corresponding passage (Adams, p. 189):

Ihesus. Open vp Hell gates, yet I say,
You princes of pine that be present,
And lett the Kinge of Bliss this way,
That he may fulfill his intent!

On p. 35 Tillyard cites a speech in ll. 189-96 of our Lord to the Forefather Adam that, while the corresponding passage in Nicodemus is addressed to all of the souls in Hades, in the Chester play echoes somewhat the moment of direct speech to Adam captured in St Epiphanius’s homily. I shall cite Joseph Quincy Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama from Its Origin Down to Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 189:

Then Jesus shall take Adam by the hand [Tunc Iesus accipiet Adam per manum.]

Ihesus. Peace to the, Adam, my darlinge,
And eke to all thy ofspringe,
That righteous were in airth lyvinge;
From me you shall not sever.
To blis[se] now I will you bringe;
Ther you shall be without endinge.
Michael, lead these men singinge
To ioy that lasteth ever.

The other work to which Tillyard refers is William Langland’s The Vision of Piers the Plowman (I refer to A.V.C. Schmidt’s edition of the B-Text in the Everyman’s Library—William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A.V.C. Schmidt [London: J.M. Dent, 1989]). Again, there is the passage corresponding to Nicodemus’s quotation of Ps. 23 (LXX), and as it is the light that speaks in Langland, it would seem that as in Nicodemus the voice is that of our Lord. The passage is in ll. 315-21 (Schmidt, p. 230):

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!’

The other passage is more unique to Langland, such that for Tillyard, ‘it reinforces my plea that Langland’s treatment of our myth [the ‘Harrowing of Hell’] is uniquely individual and comprehensive’ (p. 41). In ll. 62-7, one of the dead that arise after the death of our Lord (the sons of St Symeon in Nicodemus arise after our Lord’s resurrection, see Elliott, p. 190) speaks of the events taking place in Hades, though here they are much less detailed and more cosmic and even mythic (Schmidt, p. 221):

Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so longe tyme durede.
‘For a bitter bataille,’ the dede body seide;
‘Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir oother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shall have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng’—and sank with that til erthe.

In conclusion, just two comments. First, with this speech of the dead body, we seem to be on the mythical level where, for instance, the battles of Beowulf are often interpreted (while I unfortunately don’t have time to develop this in this post, I have already considered the connection of Beowulf with the Theophany here). Or at least that is how Tillyard reads it. One might just as well say that we are back to the ‘universal significance’ that Bishop Hilarion tells us is given to the descent into Hades in Orthodox Tradition (in his second point summarising the Eastern Fathers).

Second, I am also specifically interested in how the passage in Nicodemus where Ps. 23 (LXX) is quoted may be reflected in an interesting Paschal custom. I recall reading somewhere (but not where) of this tradition, and I have also seen it done at least once, and possibly twice or more in Greek churches (my memory is quite faulty here). At some point during the Paschal vigil (I think between the Midnight Service and the Paschal Matins, after the procession), the doors to the Temple are closed and the priest knocks and repeats the very words from this Psalm quoted in Nicodemus (the OrthodoxWiki article on 'Pascha' mentions it as a 'Syrian' tradition). Someone who has remained within answers with the question, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ In short, a dialogue very reminiscent of that in Nicodemus takes place. If any readers can help me out on this custom and/or its possible connection to the Gospel of Nicodemus, I would be much obliged!

(The image is from the Barberini Exultet Roll, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican City), Cod. Barb. Lat. 592, created in St Benedict's monastery of Monte Cassino c. 1087.)


Anonymous said...

Christ is Risen!
Aaron, I'm a Greek guy from Greece and I can tell you that this custom takes place in various parts in Greece, especially in Volos, Thessaly(the place my family comes from) and in the villages on mount Pelion, where I have seen it with my own eyes; I have heard this custom also takes place in the Ionian islands, in Euboea and in the Sporades Islands.
In short, it goes like this:
After the reading of the Gospel which tells of the empty tomb is read and the "Christ is Risen" is chanted, and before the congregation returns to the church building, the priest knocks the door which is closed and says three times:
"Lift up your heads, 0 ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in!" (Psalm 23).
Then usually the neokoros (sexton) of the Church, asks behind the closed door:
"Who is this King of Glory?".
And the priest answers:
"The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory"!
And he pushes the door open.
Interestingly, in the island of Zakynthos, the poor neokoros after the door opens, must disappear, because it is a bad omen to be seen by the congregation (after all, he has played the role of the adversary, the poor guy).
I have also seen this custom during my visit in a monastery under the omophorion of the Patriarchate of Alexandria just outside Athens. With one huge difference: This "dialog", took place after the procession of the Epitaphios on Great and Holy Friday.
Greetings from Greece.
Χριστός Ανέστη!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Apostolos! Αληθώς Ανέστη!