“You have descended into the abyss of earth, O Christ, breaking down the eternal doors which held in prison those who are bound, and like Jonah after three days in the whale, You have risen from the tomb” (Paschal canon irmos 6)
There are not many in western civilization who have not seen replicas of the famous scene painted on the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, where the Almighty Creator high and powerful swooshes down to the languid human being, just awakening, a body hardly able to rise on one elbow, the other elbow on a flexed knee, about to feel a powerful shock coursing through him from the touch of the heavenly Father to that of his limp index finger. All the energy comes from the Father’s touch. Michelangelo always paints and sculpts human figures as solid, muscular specimens of our species; however, we cannot help notice by the posture of the newly born first man a lethargy born not from exhaustion—he had yet to exist by the sweat of his brow—but as though he had only been given birth. How different are the figures in the icons of Adam the first and Adam the second.
Too few have witnessed the icon of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ called: The Harrowing of Hades. Here the young God-Man is presented in stark contrast to Michelangelo’s great Parent as He completes the mission to planet earth to find fallen Adam and to restore the cosmic harmony that the divine Twosome along with the Holy Spirit had planned before the universe came into existence.
This time there is no mere finger touch. The old Adam is as feeble and bent over as we expect of one his age—in radical contrast to the first muscular robust man expressed in the Sistine ceiling. The Son of God has no time to waste in fulfilling His mission. This is an invasion of the grim doleful haunts of the dead, since death had no place in the original master plan of the Holy Trinity. He grasps the flaccid wrist of Adam in His own powerful grip, that blessed right hand marked henceforth with the nail print of His agony on the cross, the sign of what Adam’s children thought of Him. He swoops into Hades like an eagle following its prey, snatching up the primeval couple along with all their posterity condemned to languish in that desolate bleak place of darkness.
The first couple with their progeny contribute nothing to their release. They are helpless to lend a hand to their liberation other than their yearning to be set free.
Eve appears both in the Sistine painting and the Orthodox icon of Christ’s descent into Hades, the fulfillment of God’s plan for human salvation. In the Vatican painting she is hardly detected, tucked securely in the crook of God’s left elbow, peering with curiosity and apprehension at what will become of her life on earth with her future husband. Michelangelo painted her so lovingly that at first glance she looks like one of the angels. How different she appears in the icon. There she is an ancient woman covered in a heavy mantle. Even her hands, once so eager to reach out and pluck the forbidden fruit now are covered in cloth. She has lost the boldness that she displays in the multitude of Eden scenes throughout so many paintings in both western and eastern churches.
The icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades captures the whole meaning of our Lord’s purpose in coming to earth. It speaks of our Redemption, the explanation of the Good Shepherd tale of the One who left the ninety nine in the pastures beyond the Milky Way to come in search of the stray sheep and do whatever it takes to put it on His holy shoulders and return it to the fold of the Master. Think of St. Paul’s words: “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men—He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name above every name” (Philippians 2:6).