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Lent Day 40 - Friday

The lights are all turned off in the church, as they are at the beginning of the night service on Great and Holy Saturday.  The priest ascends the pulpit, and begins: “What thing is this?  Today there is great silence upon the earth, great silence and stillness, verily great silence, for the King sleeps.”

This is the beginning of the great sermon by St. Epiphanios the Bishop of Cyprus, a sermon wrote and delivered in the fourth century.  Since then it has been a standard part of the Great and Holy Saturday commemorations at many monasteries and parishes.  The focus of the sermon is what makes it so special: it is a careful description of the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection – the so-called Harrowing of Hell.

We know that our Lord did not simply “rest” while He lay in the grave for three days – why would He do that?  If there was nothing specifically to do, no tasks to perform, Jesus would have risen from the dead immediately.

Some say that the prophesy of Jonah needed to be fulfilled.  Is that why our Lord stayed in the grave three days?  To ask that question is a misunderstanding of prophesy.  The prophets did not tell the future so that the future could fit into their prophesies; rather, they looked at the future and described what they saw.  They saw Christ in the tomb for three days, because He was busy there, and so the prophesy of Jonah told the Jewish nation that this would be one of the signs that would signal the coming of the Messiah.

Our Lord did not rest, because Hell needed some re-adjusting.  In I Peter 3:19-20, St. Peter tells us that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah...”  In other words, Jesus went to Hell (prison) to retrieve those who the devil had imprisoned from the time before His coming (the days of Noah).  And how did that happen?  We don’t know, but there are things that we can assume, like: 1) Hell was and is a gloomy place, 2) The souls it held and holds are kept in darkness, 3) The entrance of the Risen Christ into this milieu was an awesome and terrible event.  And so on. St. Epiphanios’ sermon is a meditation on the Harrowing of Hell.

St. Epiphanios desires that we would contemplate the truth of the darkness that surrounds us when we walk into the church on Pascha, and invites us to experience something of the same thrill the souls in Hell felt when they saw the light: Δεῦτε λάβετε φῶς ἐκ τοῦ ἀνεσπέρου φωτός: come take light from the light that is never overtaken by night!  When the priest walks out through the Holy Doors with the paschal candle, inviting all to take light from the light, he brings the good news of salvation, walking from the Kingdom of God into the Kingdom of the Devil with the light of Christ.  This is what it was for Christ to harrow Hell.  He brought life, and light, salvation, and freedom to those who needed it.

Here we are, my beloved companion on the Lenten journey, at the last day.  I hope my reflections have been beneficial to you, and I invite you to drink deeply from the fountain of Holy Week and Pascha, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to whom is due all glory, honor, and worship, now and forever, Amen.

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