Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18 NIV)
During the Holy Week interim between Good Friday and Easter Sunday it can feel like a bit of a lull. On Friday we remember in sorrow the death and sacrifice of Jesus, while waiting patiently for the joy of Easter morning. But what of the Saturday in between?
Holy Saturday, or Joyous Saturday as it is known in some places, is often the chance to remember and meditate upon the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ released the souls of the righteous dead from their confinement. The icon of the Anastasis is for Eastern orthodox Christians the icon of the resurrection, as we see Christ basically dragging Adam and Eve from their tombs, an illustration of the new union between God and man.
An unknown hymnist in the early church penned these words, imagining the scene:
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 sorrows 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.
The overwhelming point meant to be underlined: God has defeated death by his death.
This seeming paradox forms the cornerstone of the Gospel, for the most entrenched enemy of our race is undone by its own ministrations. And as the opening scripture relates, Christ’s defeat of death now makes him its master, so much so that he is said to hold the keys of death and Hades.
Many of the church’s earliest theologians were quite fond of this paradox, presenting death no longer as an enemy, but as the path into eternal life, since Christ’s death opened up the way into life. St. Ambrose even went so far as to state that death itself was originally given as a remedy, to cut short the effects of sin which would otherwise languish on forever and drive God’s creation into nothingness.
While in modern times we tend to perceive sin (if we bother to perceive it at all) as a violation of a divine command or as the failure to live up to a certain ideal, most of the early church fathers were wont to describe it as non-being or the privation of good. Sometimes we conceive of sin as some shadowy substance that lies under the surface, or some force of evil that pervades the universe and infects everything. The church fathers would find this notion kind of strange and muddle-headed, since they were convinced of one thing:
God created everything.
And if God created everything, then anything that is at all owes the entirety of its being and existence to God, who is the source of all Good and in whom there can be no deficiency. While the surrounding culture was prone to view created being (or at least material being) as intrinsically evil because of this created-ness or material-ness, the church fathers understood that although there is an ontological gulf being Creator and creation, since the creation derives its existence and depends on the Creator for its being, its being is therefore good.
In this understanding sin is non-being because there is nothing at all that can stand outside of God’s being, who contains and is the source of all being. Even the material world owes its existence at every moment to the providence and love of God.
For those of us unaccustomed to think in this manner it can easily sound as if such an understanding entails that sin is not a reality that we all face and which affects every part of our lives. But this is not the case. Since sin is in essence non-being, that which is sinful is anything which attempts to stand outside of the being of God, which tries to assert itself over-against God’s authority. In the garden narrative we see this struggle, for Adam and eve are tempted to become the arbiter of what is right and wrong over-against God, from whom all goodness derives. The garden imagery is fitting, for it is as if the branches of a tree were to cut themselves off from the tree and possess the life of the tree apart from it.
The branches would die.
It is also tempting to think that if sin is non-being, then ‘before’ creation the nothingness was sinful. But here our intellects try and smuggle in a tiny bit of being into nothingness so that it stands over-against God. But this is merely to misunderstand what no-thing really is, or rather, is not.
The Work of the Devil
While the modern world (including portions of the Christian world) doesn’t have much need for the Devil, the scriptures place him there in the beginning. We might be tempted to dispense with the pitchfork-bearing fiend, for don’t we face enough temptation to be like God from ourselves?
Yet the scriptures simply won’t stop talking about the Devil, as annoying as that is. If Jesus now holds the keys of Death and Hades, it seems to imply that someone else used to have them. St. John gives us a bit of insight into this:
The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. (1 John 3:8-10 NIV)
While many in the past have ascribed too much to the Devil, here St. John seems to pull out all the stops. The sad state of our race is certainly our fault, to be sure, but he places the first fall squarely with the Devil, so much so that anyone who sins is a child of the Devil, rather than a child of God. And lest anyone accuse him of equivocating, he gives us the motive for the Incarnation: to destroy the devil’s work.
The temptation in the garden seemed to be a success, since the children of Adam were now doomed to be children of the devil. If we go with St. Ambrose, God gave us death to limit the effects of sin, else we would be borne down with an infinite weight without end.
Yet even this remedy seems to come at a terrible cost, for the creative action of God appears to begin to unravel. We were brought into existence from nothingness, yet death sends us hurtling down the road back into non-being, as if the work of God has been undone by the work of the Devil.
But even in this death we can perceive a sign of God’s power, and ultimately God’s love. The rebellion of the Devil and Adam tries to stand over-against God, as if each could exist without relation to the source of his being. Instead death shows that the end of this stiff-neck performance is no-thing at all, for such a motive is not the desire for the good as its seems subjectively, but is rather the last protest of nihilism, wanting to snuff out existence rather than receive it with gratitude.
How Far Thou Art Fallen
The Devil’s fall is traditionally attributed to pride, but it may be merely the tantrum of wanting his own way, and wanting rather to plunge into nothingness than to submit to God’s endless abyss of love and wonder. Yet that same love which brings forth existence is a terrible fire- the burning knowledge that God is one and God alone; apart from him there is no other. To a heart full of awe and humility this is the clear and refreshing illumination of the sun; to the hard-hearted and petulant nihilist it is the darkest and most painful of hells, for the burning love of God cannot be quenched.
Misery loves company, and the spite of a wounded lover is ferocious indeed. The fall of our race may be little more than the petulant tantrum of a toddler who doesn’t want anyone else to play with the toys he cannot play with himself. If existence must endure, than what better way to bear it than to slash the tires of God’s creation?
Death must have seemed to the Devil a literal God-send, for not only were his plans unfolding with delicious ease, but even God seemed to be getting in on the act, flexing his temper a bit himself. To see the crown of God’s creation brought so low and seemingly turned out by its Creator was possibly cause for celebration, for not only did they languish in the sin he so viciously pursued, but they seemed to suffer its pains even more, as the decay of their flesh was a token of his greatest desire. The keys of Death and Hades felt natural in his hands, the master of all he surveyed.
What better coronation of the Lord of death than the death of God himself in the God-man? What luck! What stupendous fortune! God had either given up humanity for lost or proved himself too powerless to resist the so-called remedy he had dispensed so long ago. Physician, heal thyself indeed.
And even if there was something else afoot, sometimes a foul temper wants nothing more than a final spiteful whine. Perhaps the Devil knew what was going to happen, had realized that the Incarnation was the beginning of his defeat, and merely wanted to get out one long pout before the end.
For Jesus took upon himself the remedy for sin, the death that so long ago had kept sin in check finally claimed the sinless one. Through death the Devil had tried to make one last step outside of God’s authority, to find a loophole in the source of all being, one last foothold where even God could not tread. For God is being itself, but nothingness- God cannot go there. The final perverse vindication would be to cease to exist, to undo what God had done, to finally go where God could not go.
But the reason that death was the remedy is that God calls forth being from nothingness. All of creation stands inside of what God contains in himself, for no-thing can be apart from him. In dying, the one who is being itself showed the depths of his love and the extent of his power. No-thing can be apart from him, but even more importantly, no-thing cannot become within him.
In encountering death full-on, the work of the Devil was undone because it was never truly his work in the first place, like using a harpsichord as a hammer until Mozart comes and starts to play . When Jesus took the keys of Death and Hades, it was claiming what was his all along, for in him all things live and move and have their being.
Death is now no longer merely a remedy, but rather the door into eternal life, for in meeting Christ it no longer simply limits sin but propels the soul on to the One who gave it.
Thus, as the lull of Saturday in Holy Week turns into the joy of Easter morning, we celebrate that the death of Christ is the means of our life. We have been freed from the chains of the evil one, and are brought into glorious freedom of the children of God. As the anonymous hymnist sings:
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 my 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.