01 July 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
53, Monday 1 July 2024

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity V). Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Henry Venn (1797), John Venn (1813) and Henry Venn the younger (1873), priests and evangelical divines.

Later today I have a meeting of the trustees of a local charity in Stony Stratford. But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon depicting the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection is seventh from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 8: 18-22 (NRSVUE):

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

A detail in the icon of the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 16: The Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection (Ἡ Αναστασις):

In recent weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The seventh in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Harrowing of Hell or Christ’s Descent into Hades. This is the primary icon of Pascha (Easter) and of the Resurrection, Ἡ Αναστασις, and the Greek title above reads simply Ἡ Αναστασις (He Anastasis), the Resurrection.

In some icons, Christ’s cape or robe is flowing upwards, symbolising his radical descent into Hades to save those who have died in the flesh.

The golden bars by his feet are the gates of Hades, which he has trampled and torn apart. Keys are floating in the abyss below, symbolising he has entered and conquered both death and Hades.

The skeletal figure who is chained and bound is either Death or Satan, and the refrain sung throughout Pascha declares ‘Christ has trampled down death by death.’

The two figures whom Christ has grasped and is pulling from tombs are Adam and Eve. This gesture shows that Christ in his victory redeems all humanity, back to the very beginning, and, at the same time, foreshadows the general resurrection of the body before the Final Judgment.

To the left are three figures: David and Solomon, two of Christ’s human, lineal ancestors and Saint John the Forerunner or Saint John the Baptist , who was his forerunner in both life and death.

The figures to the right vary from icon to icon, but usually represent Old Testament prophets and saints such as Moses, Abel as a shepherd, and the three youths who were thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3).

The blue shape around Christ is called the Mandorla – which derives from the Italian word for almond, which describes its shape. The Mandorla is the uncreated, eternal light of Christ. In the writings of the Eastern Orthodox mystics, God is often prayerfully experienced as light. This is the light that filled the apostles with wonder when they witnessed the Transfiguration. Christ described it as the power of the Kingdom of God (see Mark 9: 1, Matthew 16: 28, Luke 9: 27). It is also the light that filled the previous darkness of Hades when Christ descended and brought life into the realm of death.

The Mandorla is progressively darker as it moves toward its centre, which is Christ. If God is represented by light, the Mandorla may seem confusing. However, those who seek God will find that the more they know him, the less they comprehend him. To know God, to experience him, is to walk in the darkness of his light, to enter into the mystery of his presence.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Saturday is the day Christ lay in the Tomb. The Western tradition of the Church has traditionally contemplated the cross, and then the empty tomb … and has been totally agnostic about what happened in between, between dusk on the Friday afternoon and dawn on that Sunday morning. The deep joys of the Resurrection have often been overshadowed in the Western Church by the Way of the Cross, as though the Cross leads only to death. This emphasis neglects Christ’s resting place, his tomb, and gives little thought to what was happening in the Holy Sepulchre on that holy weekend.

The Eastern Churches lack a clearly defined doctrine of Purgatory and, instead, have been more comfortable with exploring in depth the theme of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. For, while Christ’s body lays in the tomb, he is visiting those who were dead.

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light. It reminds us how much we are unable to comprehend – let alone take to heart as our own – our creedal statement that Christ ‘descended into Hell.’

The Apostle Peter tells us that when Christ died he went and preached to the spirits in prison ‘who in former times did not obey … For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does’ (see I Peter 3: 15b to 4: 8).

The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. The Harrowing of Hell is intimately bound up with the Resurrection, the Raising from the Dead, for as Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead, no matter where that may be in time and in space. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and his resurrection.

In icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of Hell. Sometimes, two angels are seen in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of Hell Adam and Eve, imprisoned there since their deaths, imprisoned along with all humanity because of sin. Christ breaks down the doors of Hell and leads the souls of the lost into Heaven. It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives buried in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?

In discussing the ‘Descent into Hell,’ Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that if Christ’s mission did not result in the successful application of God’s love to every intended soul, how then can we think of it as a success? He emphasises Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be ‘Lord of both the dead and the living’ (Romans 5).

However, in her book Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick says Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of Hell, that he only stayed in the top levels. She cannot agree that Christ’s descent into Hell entails experiencing the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through the Resurrection. Instead, she says, Christ descends only to the ‘limbo of the Fathers’ in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament waited for his coming.

And so her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into Hell and experience there the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves us with a Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death – as though he is merely ringing on the doorbell for those who are already ready to come out.

However, Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully, in The Indwelling of Light, on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. ‘The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.’

He says: ‘Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … [This] icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ [is] there to implant the possibility … of another future.’ [Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, p 38.]

I ask myself: what is the difference between the top levels of Hell and the bottom levels of Hell? Is my Hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and I work, in my society, in this world? Is hell the nightmares from the past I cannot shake off, or the fears for the future when it looks gloomy and desolate for the planet? But is anything too hard for Lord?

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Where are the depths of my heart and my soul, where darkness prevails, where I feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even I am afraid to think about, let alone contemplate, may be beyond my reach. I cannot produce or manufacture my own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from myself.

But Christ breaks down the gates of Hell. He rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God. Plummeting the depths of Hell, he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light.

Hell is where God is not; Christ is God, and his decent into Hell pushes back Hell’s boundaries. In his descent into Hell, Christ reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible. Christ plummets even those deepest depths, and his love and mercy can raise us again to new life.

To think of Christ in the grave is to ask him to take away all that denies life in us, whether it is a hell of our own making, a hell that has been forced on us, or a hell that surrounds us. Christ reaches down, and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory.

A second icon of the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 1 July 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Saint Luke’s Hospital, Nablus.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Monday 1 July 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord God, we lift those who, like Ms E [in Nablus], who face difficult circumstances - whether physical or emotional. Grant them the strength to persevere, knowing that you are their steadfast support in times of need.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, we beseech you,
that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered
by your governance,
that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
send down upon your Church
the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in all who minister the gospel
your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Harrowing of Hell in a fresco behind the icon screen in the Chapel of the Resurrection in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Harrowing of Hell Resurrection depicted in a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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