Sunday, 31 March 2013

The icon of the harrowing of Hell and 1 Peter 3:18-22

We find this icon of the harrowing (or plundering) of hell on the festival row of the iconostasis. It is the icon that is used on Holy Saturday and traditionally is associated with 'the descent into hell' of Christ, in between his death and resurrection. That teaching is based on an understanding of 1 Peter 3:18-22, which goes back to at least 350AD (It was taught in the West by St Augustine). Later on we will look at 1 Peter 3 and suggest that those verses have a slightly different meaning, but it makes little difference to the sense of the icon.

This icon is a celebration of the victory of Christ, and of what his resurrection achieves.

We take each part in turn

1. Hell: the cave at the bottom. Here we see the shattered gates of hell (cf Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says, 'I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it') and satan himself, placed under the feet of Christ. In other icons of the harrowing of hell we see the instruments of torture.
All that holds humanity captive - satan, sin and death - has been destroyed.

2. Christ: He is the central figure
This icon speaks of his divinity: his halo bears the inscription (hard to see) of alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; the light flows from Christ - he is the source of light; he holds the scroll which only he is able to open; and behind him is a circle. It could be the tomb from which he comes. But the circle is the symbol of God: it is, at its heart, black because God is beyond light. In iconography that which is bigger than light is portrayed through the absence of light. Yet out of this 'beyond light' comes light, and so the circle gets brighter the more you move away from the centre.

The icon speaks of the fact that Christ is the new Adam. This particular icon stresses this. The figure who Christ is raising is old Adam, and there is a connection between the two, drawn out by the colours that are used and the fact that the flowing robe of Christ mirrors the right leg of Adam.

We see Christ's compassion to Adam: the expression on his face can be seen

Christ's movement is both downwards (evidenced by the flowing robe), and upwards. His hand is underneath Adam's hand and he raises Adam. The brilliance of this icon is that it shows that it is because Christ descends that Adam can be raised.

3. The onlookers. On the left we see David, Solomon and John the Baptist. On the right we see Moses (holding the tablet of the law) and the prophets. They look on Christ, apart from Solomon who looks at David, and Moses who looks outwards. I haven't come across any explanation for these two figures looking away from Christ, and if anyone thinks they know what is happening here, I would be grateful if they could comment.

4. Adam and Eve: They represent humanity.

I guess if we are to place ourselves anywhere in this icon it would be either in Adam or in the front of the icon (i.e in hell).
We were entrapped, and Christ comes and raises us.
Adam looks to Christ and lifts up his right hand in response to Christ, or does he reach out to Eve? Eve patiently waits her turn

This icon does focus on what Christ has done, on his victory over sin and death and the forces of hell.

Even if 1 Peter 3:18-22 cannot be used to justify the claim that Christ descended into hell between his death and resurrection, those verses do stress the victory of Christ over evil. The introduction, 'For Christ suffered ..' also appears in 1 Peter 2:21  There, Peter tells us of the innocent suffering of Christ. Here in ch 3, Peter continues the story and tells of the victory of Christ: he suffered to bring us to God.

Christ was put to death in the sphere of the flesh and made alive in the sphere of the spirit. His body, pre-resurrection, was animated by 'flesh'. Post-resurrection, it was animated by 'spirit'. And it is in his resurrected, victorious state that he preaches to the 'the spirits in prison' (which would have been understood by Peter's readers as evil spirits). Christ is declaring to them his victory.The passage goes on to speak how, because he suffered for us, Christ has saved us and has all authority.

So the message of the icon is indeed the message of 1 Peter 3. Christ has smashed the powers of evil; he sets those free who call to him and allow him to lift them up; he proclaims his victory.

As the great Orthodox Easter hymn acclaims, "Christ is risen from the dead. Death has been defeated by death, and to those in the grave, new life has been given".





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