The Conqueror of Hell
In the teaching of the Church, the Descent into Hell is indissolubly connected with the Redemption. Since Adam was dead, the abasement of the Saviour, who had assumed his nature, had to reach the same depths to which Adam had descended. In other words, the descent into hell represents the very limits of Christ’s degradation and, at the same time, the beginning of His glory. Although the Evangelists say nothing of this mysterious event, Apostle Peter speaks of it, both in his Divinely-inspired words on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii, 14-39), and in the third chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter iii, 19). “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. Christ’s victory over hell, the deliverance of Adam and of the righteous men of the Old Testament is the main theme of the Divine Service of Great Saturday; it runs through all the Easter service and is inseparable from the glorification of Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh. This theme is, as it were, interwoven with the theme of the Resurrection. “Thou hast descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ, and hast broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and, like Jonah after three days inside the whale, Thou has risen from the tomb.”
Following the texts of the divine services, the icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual, transcendental reality of the Resurrection – the descent of our Lord’s soul into hell – and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. In harmony with the meaning of the event, the action in the icon takes place in the very depths of the earth, in hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the centre of the icon, standing out sharply by his posture and colours, is the Saviour. The author of the Easter canon, St. John of Damascus, says “Although Christ died as a man and His holy soul departed from His pure body, His Divinity remained inseparable from both – I mean body and soul.” Therefore He appears in hell not as its captive, but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of those imprisoned therein; not as a slave but as the Master of life. He is depicted in the icon with a radiant halo, symbol of glory, usually of various shades of blue, and often spangled with stars round the outer edge and pierced with rays issuing from Him. His garments are no longer those in which He is portrayed during His service on earth. They are of a golden-yellow hue, made luminous throughout by thin golden rays (“assiste”) painted upon them. The darkness of hell is filled by the light of these Divine rays – the light of glory of Him Who being God-Man, descended therein. It is already the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of the coming Easter. The Saviour tramples underfoot the two crossed leaves of hell’s doors, that He has pulled down. On many icons, below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen the repellent, cast down figure of the prince of darkness, Satan. In later icons are seen here also a number of varied details:- the power of hell destroyed – broken chains with which angels are now binding Satan, keys, nails and so forth. In His left hand Christ holds a scroll – symbol of the preaching of the Resurrection in hell, in accordance with the words of Apostle Peter. Sometimes, instead of the scroll He holds a cross, no longer the shameful instrument of punishment, by the symbol of victory over death. Having torn asunder the bonds of hell by His omnipotence, with His right hand Christ raises Adam from the grave (following Adam, our ancestress Eve rises with hands joined in prayer); that is, He frees Adam’s soul and with it the souls of all those who wait for His coming with faith. This is why, to the right and left of this scene, are shown two groups of Old Testament saints, with prophets at their head. On the left are king David and king Solomon in royal robes and crowns, and behind them John the Forerunner; on the right – Moses with the tablets of the Law in his hand. Seeing the Saviour descended into hell, they at once recognise Him and are pointing out to others Him of Whom they had prophesied and Whose coming they had foretold.
The descent into hell was the last step made by Christ on the way of His abasement. By the very fact of “descending into the abyss of the earth” He opened to us the access to heaven. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of mankind from slavery to him who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, He laid the foundation of a new life for those who have united with Christ into a new reborn mankind. Thus the spiritual raising of Adam is represented in the icon of the Descent into Hell as a symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first-fruit of which was the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although this icon expresses the meaning of the event commemorated on Great Saturday and is brought out for worship on that day, it is, and is called, an Easter icon, as a prefiguration of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and therefore of the future resurrection of the dead.
Leonid Ouspensky, “The Resurrection,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 187-188.
He refers to him continually. He combats him without respite. He does not believe him to be a myth, but a real person, the most insidious enemy of the Church
by Sandro Magister
ROME, May 13, 2013 – In the preaching of Pope Francis, there is one subject that returns with surprising frequency: the devil.
It is a frequency on a par with that with which the same subject recurs in the New Testament. But in spite of this, the surprise remains. If for no other reason than that with his continual references to the devil, pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio parts ways with the current preaching in the Church, which is silent about the devil or reduces him to a metaphor.
In fact, the minimization of the devil is so widespread that it casts its shadow over the very words of the pope. Public opinion, both Catholic and secular, has so far met this insistence of his on the devil with indifference, or at the most with indulgent curiosity.
One thing, however, is certain. For pope Bergoglio, the devil is not a myth, but a real person. In one of his morning homilies in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, he said that not only is there a hatred of the world for Jesus and the Church, but that behind this spirit of the world is “the prince of this world”:
"With his death and resurrection, Jesus has ransomed us from the power of the world, from the power of the devil, from the power of the prince of this world. The origin of the hatred is this: we are saved and that prince of the world, who does not want us to be saved, hates us and gives rise to the persecution that from the earliest times of Jesus continues until today."
One must react to the devil - the pope says - as did Jesus, who “replied with the word of God. With the prince of this world one cannot dialogue. Dialogue is necessary among us, it is necessary for peace, it is an attitude that we must have among ourselves in order to hear each other, to understand each other. And it must always be maintained. Dialogue is born from charity, from love. But with that prince one cannot dialogue; one can only respond with the word of God that defends us.”
In speaking of the devil, Francis demonstrates that he has very clearly in mind his biblical and theological foundations.
And precisely for a fresh understanding of these foundations, "L'Osservatore Romano" of May 4 published an article by the theologian Inos Biffi that reviews the presence and role of the devil in the Old and New Testament, both in that which is revealed and manifest and in that which still belongs to a “hidden panorama” and in a definitive manner to the “inscrutable ways" of God.
The article is reproduced below, and concludes with a criticism of the current ideology that “trivializes” the person of the devil.
The ideology against which Bergoglio wants to call everyone back to reality.
HOW THE SCRIPTURES SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
by Inos Biffi
After the appearance of man, the work of the sixth day of creation, there is felt the presence of something mysterious and disquieting, that of the serpent. That which he undertakes with regard to the progenitors and sets out to obtain from them is astonishing and disturbing: he intends to plant within them suspicion about God; that is, to persuade them that the prohibitions that he has established arise from jealousy, from fear of being equaled by them. The serpent embodies, precisely at the beginning of the world and its history, the presence of an envious being: "Through the envy of the devil death entered the world” (Wisdom 2:24).
In the New Testament there are frequent references to that serpent. Jesus refers to him declaring that the devil is “a murderer from the beginning”; in him "there is no truth”; “when he speaks falsehood, he speaks from what is his own, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). And again Jesus calls him “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11).
Paul affirms that "with his cunning the serpent seduced Eve" (2 Corinthians 11:3): and he refers to those who become lost "following Satan" (1 Timothy 5:14). The same apostle speaks of the worldly way of life by which one follows "the prince of the powers of the air, that spirit who works in rebellious men" (Ephesians 2:2); he makes mention of the “snares of the devil” and of our battle “against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, against the spirits of evil” (Ephesians 6:12).
The first letter of Peter names the “enemy,” “the devil,” or “the accuser,” who “like a roaring lion goes prowling around seeking whom he may devour” (5:8). And in the letters of John is recalled “the antichrist” who must come (1 John 2:18); the “liar” who denies that Jesus is the Christ; the “antichrist” who “denies the Father and the Son” (2:22). In Revelation it is written: “A great war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon fought together with his angels, but he did not prevail and there was no place for them in heaven. And the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the one who is called devil and Satan and who seduces all of the inhabited earth, was thrown to earth and together with him his angels” (12:7-9).
Between these texts and the exegesis of Jesus on the devil, murder and liar from the beginning, the agreement is perfect: this is a matter of a being hostile to God, whose Word he aims to throw into confusion, and at the same time hostile to man, whom he intends to seduce and induce to rebel against the divine plan. He is the evil one. In particular, the exegetical agreement concerns the one for whom the devil reserves his aversion, Jesus Christ.
This creates an antithesis between two royalties: that of Jesus and that of the prince of this world. The devil cannot tolerate Jesus Christ and seeks in every way to disrupt the divine plan conceived concerning him. As in the desert.
But Jesus proclaims himself victor over this prince: “The prince of this world is coming,” he says, “against me he can do nothing" (John 14:30); specifically, it is at the arrival of the hour of Jesus, that of his being lifted up on the cross and at the right hand of the Father, that that prince is struck down: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world will be cast down." With the pouring out of the Spirit by the glorified Lord, that prince meets his condemnation (John 16:11). Paul in particular remarks upon the lordship of the Risen One: in him the Father “has freed us from the power of darkness” (Colossians 1:13) and “has deprived of their strength the principalities and powers," and "has made them a public spectacle, triumphing over them in Christ" (2:15).
The Christian has become a sharer in the lordship of Jesus over the devil: “when we were dead through our faults, he brought us back to life with Christ. With him he also raised us and made us sit in heaven, in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:5-6).
Although definitively defeated by the Lord, the devil still tries to ensnare and bring down redeemed man. Peter spoke of his roaring and of his unspent will to harm; Paul urges the taking up of the shield of faith, in order to quench the “fiery arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). And Jesus himself had taught his followers to pray by asking the Father to deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 5:13).
The multiple exegeses on the serpent that appears at the beginning lead us to a few considerations.
The first is on the “history" consummated and decided before the creation of man, and consisting in the outbreak of the “great war in heaven” (Revelation 12:7), or rather in an agreement or rebellion that took place in the angelic world: not a generic agreement or rebellion, but aimed at the concrete and internal divine plan, which in personal terms is Jesus Christ.
The prideful unacceptance of the rebel angels has as its object Jesus, “preeminent over all things," and therefore preeminent over them as well. This explains why the life of Jesus was never hindered by the presence and machinations of the devil; and on the contrary - from the announcement of his birth until the ascension - was accompanied, served, and consoled by the presence of the angels, who rejoice in him and with him are victors over the great dragon and his satellites, cast out of heaven and thrown down, as Revelation states. Jesus himself affirmed that he had seen “Satan fall from heaven like lightning" (Luke 10:18) and spoke of the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
We have spoken of the history that precedes the visible one of man: that which we know is what emerges as from a hidden panorama, which exceeds and eludes us and which now we can only presume and intuit.
The second consideration concerns the stunning power of Satan: this is so strong and tenacious that only the power of the Son of God can defeat and overcome it; moreover, the power of the Son of God nailed to the cross, and therefore in a condition of extreme human weakness, which paradoxically becomes, without strain, absolute power. The devil is able to draw in everything and everyone, but before Jesus he becomes completely yielding. The crucified and risen one re-creates a victorious humanity, removed from the perverse influence of the evil one. The attraction of the devil is replaced by the attraction of Christ, who declares: “When I am raised up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32). Only by sharing in the vigor of the slain and glorified Christ are we able to resist the flattery of the serpent from the beginning.
There could still remain one question: without a doubt the fall of angel and of man depends solely on the free will of the creature; not only that, but the forgiveness of man was included in the merciful love of the Father, who predestined his Son Jesus to be the redeemer; but why does the concrete order chosen by God include that fall and therefore the reality of sin? To this we are not able to reply: it belongs to the “thought of the Lord,” to his unfathomable judgments” and to his “inscrutable ways” (Romans 11:32-34).
A third consideration is to manifest surprise in the face of the absence in preaching and catechesis of the truth concerning the devil. Not to speak of those theologians who, on the one hand, applaud the fact that Vatican II declared Scripture to be the “soul of sacred theology” (Dei Verbum, 24), and, on the other, do not hesitate - if not to decide on his nonexistence (as they do for the angels) - in any case to overlook as marginal a fact that is so clear and widely attested to in Scripture itself as is that concerning the devil, maintaining him to be the personification of an obscure and primordial idea of evil, now demystified and unacceptable.
Such a conception is a masterpiece of ideology, and above all is equivalent to trivializing the very work of Christ and his redemption.
This is why those references to the devil which we find in the discourses of Pope Francis seem to us anything but secondary.
NOW, ON A DIFFERENT THEME
Pope Benedict xvi consecrates the Holy Family church in Barcelona, surely a wonderful work of art.
soloist from the Escolania de Montserrat, the oldest boys choir in Europe.