Descent into Hell

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40 OSB).

2013_11_15_00_03Jonah’s flight from God brings him to a point in time when he must make a decision. He can choose between continuing to hide, or offering himself to save the seafarers onboard the ship. Just as Christ sought to “let this cup pass from me,” Jonah sought another path. But in the end, he saw that for the sake of others, he had to pass through suffering and, from his perspective, probably death.

Jonah, while reluctant, follows the pattern of Christ’s life. The Christian too, while reluctant, must follow this path. When initially given a command to obey, we disobey and hide from God. All of mankind has sinned and hidden from God as did both Jonah and Adam, but Christ, as the culmination of God’s winnowing action upon mankind, like the fine point of a needle, opens the way of salvation. Jonah’s descent into the depths of the sea for three days typifies Christ’s descent into hell and our descent in his wake through the baptism of water and of tears.

I recently experienced the joy of a friend’s wedding. Father Anthony, the presiding priest, observed in his homily that the act of martyrdom is present in each of the sacraments. Baptism demonstrates the death of self and the renewal into life brought by this sacrifice. Confession too contains the death and suffering of the self. The sacrament of marriage is replete with martyrdom and self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s spouse. And of course the ultimate sacrifice is evident in Christ’s self-offering of the Eucharist.

The prerequisite for redemption is sacrifice. Out of the depths of Christ’s sacrifice, he raises up his apostles unto the Gentiles just as Jonah ascended from the depths to the Ninevites. We must likewise, through our own self-sacrifice, ‘tradition’ the faith to our spiritual descendants. Saint Paul presents himself as a metaphor of Christ, revealing that he carries about in his own body the death of the Lord Jesus, that His life might be made manifest in his children (2 Corinthians 7-12). Like the risen Lord, Paul metaphorically dies so that his children might live. It is this continual cycle of death and rebirth that is the essence of tradition.

Ultimately, Christ’s resurrection and ascension culminate in our deification. Saint Athanasius the Great said that, “The Son of God became man that we might become god.” Christ, in his descent into death and ascent into life, ‘traditions’ unto us the purifying power of martyrdom and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in the outpouring of Pentecost. The purification experienced through martyrdom prepares us for the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Material persons are purified, sanctified, and deified. Bread and wine become God. Bones work miracles. The dead live.

The martyrs are those who have truly sacrificed everything for God. They are seeds who have been planted, died, and risen into true life. They have finally become human.

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).


Purity of Heart

Because I have been practicing with the choir in preparation for Pascha, I had an opportunity to sing the hymn we sing at midnight:

Thy resurrection oh Christ our savior,
the angels in heaven sing,
enables us on earth
to glorify thee in purity of heart.

For some reason singing that caused me to think about the implications of what it says. It seems obvious and maybe intuitive, but I ended up spending several hours pouring through theology books in an attempt to find a good articulation of the reality.

I ended up with two passages from different theology books that, while perhaps not explicit about purity of heart, lead one on the path to understanding. The first passage relates in detail what happened at the death and resurrection of our Lord. This is taken from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky:

Christ, after His death on the Cross, descended in His soul and in His Divinity into hell, at the same time that His body remained in the grave. He preached salvation to the captives of hell and brought up from there all the Old Testament righteous ones into the bright mansions of the Kingdom of Heaven. Concerning this raising up of the righteous ones from hell, we read in the Epistle of St. Peter: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit; by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19). And in the same place we read further: “For this cause was the Gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). St. Paul speaks of the same thing: quoting the verse of the Psalm, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men,” the Apostle continues: “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:8-10).

To use the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Hell was taken captive by the Lord Who descended into it. It was laid waste, it was mocked, it was put to death, it was overthrown, it was bound” (Homily on Pascha).

I suppose one might wonder how one could have any purity of heart if one was held captive in hell. That’s somewhat crude, but it’s clear that death and hell are a factor that would prevent us from glorifying Christ in purity of heart.

The second passage I found helpful is from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky:

The way of deification, which was planned for the first man, will be impossible until human nature triumphs over sin and death. The way to union will henceforth be presented to fallen humanity as salvation. This negative term stands for the removal of an obstacle: one is saved from something—from death, and from sin—its root. The divine plan was not fulfilled by Adam; instead of the straight line of ascent towards God, the will of the first man followed a path contrary to nature, and ending in death. God alone can endow men with the possibility of deification, by liberating him at one and the same time from death and from captivity to sin. What man ought to have attained by raising himself up to God, God achieved by descending to man. That is why the triple barrier which separates us from God—death, sin, nature—impassable for men, is broken through by God in the inverse order, beginning with the union of the separated natures, and ending with victory over death. Nicholas Cabasilas, a Byzantine theologian of the fourteenth century, said on this subject: “The Lord allowed men, separated from God by the triple barrier of nature, sin and death, to be fully possessed of Him and to be directly united to Him by the fact he has set aside each barrier in turn: that of nature by His incarnation, of sin by His death, and of death by His resurrection.” This is the reason why St. Paul writes: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (I Cor 15:26).

This makes it clear that the last barrier is death and thus the resurrection is that event which finally unravels or removes the the last barrier to deification, and thus purity of heart.

Lazarus & Iconography

Given that Lazarus Saturday is fast approaching, and I am particularly fond of this story, I want to share a comparison I did a while back of a western painting of the story of Lazarus with an Orthodox icon of the same story. There are many very striking western representations of the story, but I find the baroque of Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet particularly engaging.

jean-baptiste_jouvenet_-_the_raising_of_lazarus_-_wga12033What is striking to me about this image is not only the use of light to draw the eye to key points, but realism blended with the surreal. The characters have a three-dimensionality and detail, that while not quite photographic, is starkly contrasted with Orthodox iconography. And yet, the realism seems incongruous with the unbelievability of the scene. The image portrays what seems to me to be extreme chaos. The chaos revolves around the central figure of Christ who seems to anchor reality in place.

What almost destroys the coherence of the image is Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Her bright white garments almost seem to glow brighter than Christ himself. My eye is naturally drawn first to Christ, but before locking in on Him, it is almost distracted by Mary enough to take a short detour. But Christ is deftly positioned by Jouvenet, according to the rules of composition, to be the center of balance of the image. The eye is naturally directed from Christ to Mary next. Mary, just as in Orthodox iconography, pleads with Christ, taking a central role at his feet.

The eye finally moves from Mary to Lazarus, whose portrayal is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this image. He is clouded in shadow, not having completely emerged from the cave. His expression, while difficult to discern, evokes a sense of astonishment mixed with awe. If the lighting were brighter, I could imagine tears.

The scene does seem to borrow a modicum of fashion influence from Jouvenet’s world and perhaps some European facial features, but I think this can be forgiven. We all tend to inject portions of our own experience back into our work. Additionally, one might wonder how a stone would fit over the mouth of this “cave,” but I think this too can be forgiven and chalked up to artistic license. Overall, this painting is quite remarkable and one that I would be proud to hang in my living room.

167996-pOn the right, you will find a fairly typical Orthodox icon representing the Biblical account of the resurrection of Lazarus.

Surprisingly, many of the features of this icon are found in the Jouvenet as well. Christ has a nimbus, Mary is pleading with him at his feet, and Lazarus is emerging from the cave. One might even note that Christ’s garments are very close in color. His toga is blue in both images, and while not bright red in the Jouvenet, his tunic is clearly of a reddish hue. Likewise, Mary’s garment is essentially white in both images. And of course, Lazarus’ grave clothes are white in both images.

What is most noticeably different between the images is the level of “passion” involved in the scene. Jouvenet draws you into the scene in an emotional way. Most of the key elements of the story are still there, it is the dynamism, emotional expressions, and the pure chaos that overwhelms the senses. The overwhelming difference between the two is how each makes you feel when you view it. The feeling I have when I view the Orthodox icon could almost be described as dispassionate.

Another key difference between the two images is the sense of noise. The icon removes nearly all extraneous information. All of the key elements of the story are portrayed in the image, but there is almost nothing extra. The story is fully told, but only the story. On the contrary, the Jouvenet creates an entire world full of things that quite possibly never existed. These features serve to convey a certain feeling and sense that that author wanted you to feel, but are not necessarily an accurate representation of the story. While beautiful, the baroque piece actually transmits a great deal of noise to the intellect of the viewer. The icon teaches us about the resurrection. The Jouvenet teaches us about our reaction to the resurrection. Because of this, the Orthodox icon is clearly better suited for pedagogical purposes and also for veneration. In venerating the Jouvenet, we would be venerating something more than the Biblical event. We would be venerating a creation of the mind of Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet. However, in venerating the icon, we much more closely venerate the Biblical event and only the Biblical event.

In conclusion, the Jouvenet is a beautiful work of art that can very much be appreciated by anyone who loves art. It does convey a sense of a real event in the life of Christ in a very beautiful and engaging way, albeit with a strangely emotive force. However, as a pedagogical tool or as a means of veneration, this beautiful painting is unsuitable. It cannot convey the story in its pure form. The Orthodox icon distills the image into its most fundamental aspects and conveys the meaning of the event to the intellect and the heart in a way that the Jouvenet does not. It reaches past the emotions into the soul of man.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Iconography


In our ongoing discussion of the Hospitality of Abraham, we have followed the story from the Old testament, through the New Testament, the writings of the Fathers, and the Liturgical witness. This final installment will take a brief look at the iconography and explore a few thoughts to help wrap up the discussion.

I have personally experienced an explanation of Rublev’s icon by several parish priests. Many of the aspects of the story in Genesis 18 are visible, including the famous oak tree at Mamre, which is seen near the top and just to the right of center, and Abraham’s ‘tabernacle’ or tent in the upper left of the icon. Food has been placed before the men by Abraham. The three men take on angelic form as is noted in Hebrews 13:2.

In addition, Saint Andrei Rublev has added some elements that cannot be directly discerned from the story in Genesis, but from later developments in Theology. For instance, the colors of the central figure’s garments closely match the typical colors that Christ wears in other icons. The green on the right-hand figure is reminiscent of the color we see most prominently at the feast of Pentecost, representing the Holy Spirit. Both of the rightmost figures are inclining their heads toward the leftmost figure, representing deference to the primus inter pares (i.e. the Father). The negative space between the two outermost figures approximates the shape of a chalice, while the central figure is inside this chalice. And a nearly perfect circle can be discerned in the outermost outlines of the three figures.

What has been left out is also of interest. Genesis 18:8 describes Abraham standing nearby under the oak tree and verse 10 describes Sarah standing in the doorway of her tent. Unlike earlier portrayals, Rublev chose to exclude some of these key features of the story so that the focus might center on the Holy Trinity. Even the colors of the angels are more vibrant than the colors of their surroundings.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 2.37.06 PMThe Rublev icon is generally seen to be the ultimate evolution of the iconographic representation of the Old Testament Trinity. However, it appears that the iconographic tradition lagged behind the patristic tradition. Bunge claims that depictions of the story were from the beginning angelological1 and notes that we begin to encounter Christologically oriented depictions around the year 1000.2 The icon on the right shows such a Christological rendition, in which you can see the usual cross, indicating Christ, in the nimbus around the central figure. The tradition culminates in Rublev’s famous icon (c. 1410) in which we seem to have reverted to a purely angelological depiction, but find elements, however subtle, of the more advanced Trinitarian theology of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers.


While knowledge of the evolution of the patristic understanding and iconographic tradition is edifying, the most important aspect of such a study is to obtain an understanding of what the church presently teaches us through an active participation in the life of the Church. The present teaching is the culmination of this progressive deepening process.

I believe that the first and foremost dimension of this teaching is the confluence of the Feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, with the veneration of the icon of the Holy Trinity. The icon placed in the context of the birth of the church and the complete revelation of the Holy Trinity juxtaposes the type with the antetype. We see at once the Old Testament promise and its New Testament fulfillment. We see the beginning of the Old Testament Church juxtaposed with the birth of the New Testament Church. And we see a veiled image of God alongside a fuller revelation of the Holy Trinity. However, the most startling picture for me is Saint Cyril’s portrait of three persons walking and speaking in unison. The Trinity truly is One in essence and undivided.

1 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 52.

2 Ibid, p. 48.

The Hospitality of Abraham: The Liturgical Witness

2012pentecost23In our ongoing discussion of the typology evident in the story of Abraham’s Hospitality, we have taken a brief tour of the Biblical and Patristic understandings. In this post we will take a very brief look at how this is revealed in the Orthodox liturgy.

The primary liturgical expression of the Old Testament Trinity is during the feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, when in many parishes the icon of the Holy Trinity is placed in the center of the church for veneration.1 Through this action, the earliest revelation of God’s Trinitarian nature is linked to its more complete revelation on the day of Pentecost.2

On the Sunday before Nativity, Forefathers Sunday, we find a direct reference to God’s appearance at Mamre in the Matins service: “Of old holy Abraham entertained the one Godhead in three persons; while now the Word, enthroned with the Father and the divine Spirit, comes forth for the Youths, and he is greatly praised.”3 Additionally, a tribute to Abraham’s visitation is often present in Sunday’s midnight office. Ode 8 in the 5th tone is particularly poignant: “Even that of old you might clearly reveal the triple hypostasis of the one Lordship, you appeared, my God, in human form to Abraham as he praised your single might.”4

These instances are by no means exhaustive, but seem representative. While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to trace these instances back to their origins, it is reasonable to speculate that Abraham’s encounter with the Holy Trinity appeared liturgically as early as the time of Saint John Damascene (676-749) since he is attributed with the creation of an early form of the Octoechos, in which we find the relevant verses of the Midnight Office.5 The Matins occurrences in the Menaion might possibly be even older.

In our next and final post in this series, we will take a look at the iconography relating to this story and offer some thoughts on what it all means.

1 OrthodoxWiki authors, Pentecost.

2 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Yonkers:Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982), p. 200.

3 Archimandrite Ephrem, Matins, Sunday Before NativityLiturgical Texts.

4 Archimandrite Ephrem, Midnight Office, Tone 5, Sunday.

5 Wikipedia Authors, Octoechos.

Judith: Chapter 7 Commentary


The Citizens Complain (c. 1430), Azor Masters

I have completed a draft translation of chapter 7 of the Blessed Rabanus Maurus’ Commentary on the Book of Judith.

In chapter 7, the city of Bethulia is besieged by Holofernes and his army. The people of Bethulia earnestly beseech the Lord in prayer, yet, their faith is not as strong as it should be. Holofernes and his people notice that Bethulia has a water supply coming into the city through an aqueduct, so they block up the aqueduct, cutting off the supply of water. This clearly makes the people a bit nervous or even afraid, which is evident to the enemy simply from they way they act. Even once the main supply of water is cut off, there are sparse springs near the city walls that people come out to to drink. The Book of Judith notes that they would come out “to refresh themselves a little rather than to drink their fill” (Judith 7:7). This is what tips off the enemy.

Eventually the people come whining to the leaders of the city about the lack of water, begging them to surrender to Holofernes so that they can quench their thirst. The chief leader of the city, Ozias, asks them for a grace period of five days so that the Lord will have a chance to respond to their prayers.

Rabanus ties items in the story very directly to the things of everyday life. For instance, he ties this period of five days to the five senses of the body and finally convenience.

Those five days can be understood as the five senses of the body, by means of which the present life is derived. For indeed, just as the inept teacher seeks a span of five days for a grace period, so does anyone who unwisely promises that physical comfort is to be given from the Lord first-hand to his students, as if the generosity of the highest giver is in his power (given that time and a measure of concession consists more in the ability to give than to receive).

If, however, convenience is refused to be bestowed upon those things of the present life by the Supernal Judge, in accordance with their promise, they immediately desert them to turn aside into illicit desire, and by yielding to their persecutors they avoid physical pain; our Judith, that is the Holy Church, refuses and disdains as hurtful the condition of their agreement, which will be clearly demonstrated in the things that follow.

Rabanus likens the whinings of the citizens of Bethulia to our own lack of fortitude. While they are unable to wait upon the Lord on his own time, we too are unwilling to live with a little inconvenience in our lives. We yield to the temptation of the evil one in order to avoid pain. As we shall see in the next chapter, Judith, that is the Church, refuses this approach.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Cyril and Maximus


So far in this short series, we have followed the development of the Church’s understanding of the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. In this post we will wrap up our discussion of the patristic dialog with Saints Cyril and Maximus.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria seems to have presented the most definitive and enduring interpretation regarding Genesis 18. The understanding expressed by Cyril seems to have prevailed and for this reason I deemed it worth the effort to translate an extended passage of his argument from an available Latin translation of the original Greek. Commenting on Genesis 18:1-3, 9-10a (LXX), Cyril writes:

Behold, clearly it says God appeared unto him, truly being three men in appearance, the Holy Abraham approaching from afar speaking not as if to three: “Lords, if indeed I have found grace in your (pl.) sight, pass not by your (pl.) son,” but calling upon the threefold Lord singularly, as if to one, so that they might turn aside unto him, he asked “when,” and as one appearing in three, even as from one persona, they said, “Where is Sarra thy wife?” and responded, “I will come when the time is ripe.”

Discern therefore, discern indeed three appearing, and each identified by its respective hypostasis,1 in word subject to the consubstantial three comprehended in one, and thus intermingling the given work of conversation among themselves. But the likenesses of this mode are obscured in a certain way and are inferior to the truth, unless in some way they are to be used as a hand leading us into knowledge of their properties, which surpass the intellect and speech (obviously the light of the divine vision will penetrate only the most pure intellects), and as from these things which fall to the senses we fly unto that which to our senses and strength of reasoning are very far.

Singular, therefore, by the unanimity of all persons, is the nature of divinity, which is over all, through all and in all: through intellectual means, verily, this is extrapolated to the holy, venerable, and consubstantial Trinity, into the Father, I say, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit… Our progenitor Abraham, therefore, was not ignorant of the worship of the Holy Trinity…2

Cyril’s portrayal of the three speaking in unison is remarkable. He describes the three who appear to Abraham as likenesses that, while not the fullness of the truth, lead us, as if by the hand, into knowledge of God. He asserts that an understanding of the Holy Trinity can be discerned from this type through the application of the intellect. With Cyril we have completed the transition from a Christological to a Trinitarian interpretation.

maximus_the_confessorSaint Maximus, in his Third Dialog on the Holy Trinity, affirms Saint Cyril’s view, arguing likewise that Abraham spoke to three as to one.3 At one point in the dialog, the dialogist known as ‘Orthodox’ literally states that “the three men were God,”4 while his challenger ‘Macedonius’ insists that only one of the three was God and the others were angels. Saint John Damascene agrees with the imagery, yet makes certain to clarify that, “Abraham saw not the nature of God, for no man ever saw God, but the image of God, and falling down he adored.”5

It is interesting to observe that many, if not most, of the arguments made by the Fathers pivot on a precise interpretation of the literal words in Genesis 18. For instance, the Fathers carefully point out an address made in the singular, or an act done in the plural (e.g. the three measures of flour). Each word of Scripture is deemed significant.

In summary, the writings of the Holy Fathers reveal a progression in understanding of the story of The Hospitality of Abraham. In the earliest times all three persons are seen to be angels. In the second century a Christological interpretation is introduced. As we progress through the later fathers, the three men come to be seen as a type of the Holy Trinity, and even as a true theophany, not only of the Son, but of the entire Trinity. Ouspensky and Lossky clarify that the differences present in the latter two views do not change the understanding of the event because all the fullness of the Godhead is present in each Person. Consequently the earlier interpretation does not preclude a Trinitarian understanding.6

In our next post in this series, we will take a brief look at the liturgical witness to this story.

1 The latin word is subsistentia, which has a very similar meaning to the Greek hypostasis.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Pro Sancta Christianorum Religione, Adversos Libros Athei Iuliani,’ in Cyrillii Alexandriae Archiepiscopi Operum, ed. Joannis Auberti, v. 6, b. 1, p. 20.

3 Saint Maximus the Confessor, ‘Opera Omnia,’ ed. Francisci Combefis, v. 2, p. 442.

4 Tres viri fuerunt Deus.

5 Saint John Damascene, ‘On Holy Images,’ trans. Mary H. Allies, (London:Thomas Baker 1898), Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College.

6 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, ‘The Meaning of Icons,’ (Yonkers:Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982), p. 201.