Descent into Hades
Arise, O Lord, Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations.
It’s been a long week; a long Lent, too, if we’ve been keeping it properly. But the end is in sight: already the Friday night Matins has begun in lamentation and ended with the myrrh bearers making their way to the tomb to anoint Christ. We have each been bid “glorious resurrection” as we left. We have stood all night beside a flower-adorned tomb. As Holy Saturday dawns, all the faithful prepare for Pascha, and the service reflects that. The form is the Liturgy of Saint Basil: the long form of the weekly Liturgy: a service too joyous for the weekdays of Lent, but now appropriate as Christ descends into Hades to free the captives and ultimately destroy the power of Death itself. Liturgy is the service of the sacrament of Communion, wherein Christ gives Himself “for the life of the world,” that we might eat HIm body and drink His blood, and be made new. Always, and in a special way during Lent and Holy Week we seek to die to ourselves that we might be raised again in Christ. Holy Saturday is the great feast of His life-giving death, and was traditionally the day on which catechumens were baptized into His death and raised up into new life. It still is in many churches, though often they are baptized the week before so that they can participate more fully in Holy Week.
LIturgy is nearly the same always, with little glimpses showing through that this day is different. We sing “as many as are baptised into Christ have put on Christ, alleluia” again and again before the Gospel reading. We sing:
“Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation in the hollow of His hand; a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to Thy dispensation, whereby Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath, Thy most holy Resurrection from the dead.”
We sing much of a Sabbath rest after the Passion of Friday. He who is Life eternal is not truly dead: he sleeps. He will return to redeem His people. We have sinned, but are not forsaken. He gives us himself for food and drink.
Then, there comes a point at the end of the Liturgy, after the people have communed, when the priest comes out of the alter with a basket of bay leaves. Apparently they represent victory, and are related to laurels. There have been, like I said, hints of joy before, but this is where it really breaks out. The priest goes around the church singing “Arise O God and judge the Earth: you shall take the nations as an inheritance,” while throwing bay leaves. Preferably this happens as enthusiastically and dramatically as possible. The Church is saying: “God! It’s time! Wake up!”
Then everyone goes home and gets ready for the Pascha service: we bake bread, dye eggs, buy cheese, wine, and sausage, and await the Resurrection.
The typical Resurrection icon is actually the icon of Holy Saturday: Christ’s descent into Hades.