Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out

Here are a few of the many hymns from last night with the start of Lazarus Saturday. Toward the end, several of them break into the voice of Lazarus himself or of Hell itself.

Calling Lazarus from the tomb, immediately Thou hast raised him; but Hell below lamented bitterly, and groaning, trembled at Thy power, O Savior.

Calling Lazarus by name, Thou hast broken in pieces the bars of Hell and shaken the power of the enemy; and before Thy Crucifixion, Thou hast made the enemy tremble because of Thee, O only Savior.

O Master, Thou hast come as God to Lazarus, bound captive by Hell, and Thou hast loosed him from his fetters, for all things submit to Thy command, O Mighty Lord.

The palaces of Hell were shaken, when in its depths Lazarus began once more to breathe, straightway restored to life by the sound of Thy voice.

As man, Thou hast shed tears for Lazarus; as God, Thou hast raised him up. Thou hast asked, O Loving Lord: Where is he buried, dead these four days; thus confirming our faith in Thine Incarnation. [Because, Jesus would have to ask “where” only as a human.]

Wishing in Thy love to reveal the meaning of Thy Passion and Thy Cross, Thou hast broken open the belly of Hell that never can be satisfied, and as God Thou hast raised up a man four days dead.

Joining dust to spirit, O Word, by Thy word in the beginning, Thou hast breathed into the clay a living soul. And now, by Thy word, Thou hast raised up Thy friend from corruption and from the depths of the earth.

“Thou hast called me from the lowest depths of Hell, O Savior,” cried Lazarus to Thee when Thou hast set him free from Hell; “and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“Thou knowest all things, yet hast asked where I was buried. As man by nature, Thou hast wept for me, O Savior, and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“Thou hast clothed me in a body of clay, O Savior, and breathed life into me, and I beheld Thy light; and Tho hast raised me from the dead by thy command.”

“Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out, O Savior, by Thy power; and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“I implore thee, Lazarus,” said Hell, “Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.”

Let Bethany sing with us in praise of the miracle, for there the Creator wept for Lazarus in accordance with the law of nature and the flesh. Then, making Martha’s tears to cease and changing Mary’s grief to joy, Christ raised him from the dead.

Shaking the gates and iron bars, Thou hast made Hell tremble at Thy voice. Hell and Death were filled with fear, O Savior, seeing Lazarus their prisoner brought to life by Thy word and rising from the tomb.

Where are these other things?

J.R.R.Tolkien in “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”

“But do you know that the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other clearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things?”

“We are both Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?”

***

“Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,” said Finrod. “For if your claim is true, then lo! a fëa [meaning something close to “soul”] which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hröa [meaning something close to “body”] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the fëa when it departs must take with it the hröa. And what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.”

“Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.”

***

“They say,” answered Andreth: “they say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumor that has come down through years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.”

a meditation on brokenness

This meditation below reminded me of much that I’ve considered recently. See my thoughts here for example. The reflections below were posted to “The Art of Transfiguration” Facebook page on May 2, 2015 by “Unworthy Seraphim” [Robert Hegwood] (with minor edits in punctuation, spacing, and capitalization):

It’s okay to hurt: a meditation on brokenness.

It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to feel broken, alone, empty, and depressed. Not that these are good things—certainly not. But are they are part of normal human experience in our abnormally broken world. Sometimes we feel that there is an unwritten rule in our Christian communities that we have to be happy all the time—that it is a sign of true faith or piety if our experience is that of joy and peace and nothing else.

Our ascetic tradition tells us something different. I heard an interview with a monk who stated that the spiritual life is probably at most 10% peace…the other 90% percent being struggle.

Today many of us have the tendency to beat ourselves up for being caught in the struggle. We condemn ourselves for our negative feelings as though we can just “feel good” all the time. We have inherited logismoi (thoughts) from our culture that tells us we are insufficient or abnormal when we experience pain, hurt, and sadness.

Christ calls us to a more radical freedom. Our Divine Physician does not deal with illusions and non-realities. Brokenness is often the exact place where Christ wants to meet us [because it is where we actually are]. Many times we read stories of great monastic elders who found grace through intense struggle with demons. I’ve read on more than one occasion of a monk who [was] standing up and throwing punches at the demons for continually interrupting his prayer! Well perhaps our struggle is not quite that intense. But we’ve probably all had moments of wanting to throw a punch at our short tempter, our chronic lust, our tenacious depression…

The point is that struggle is normal.

During this season of Christ’s Resurrection, we constantly sing “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death.” How was this great victory achieved? By death. Sit for a moment with the mystery…with the paradox. Victory in death? Indeed.

From the moment of His birth, Christ is entering deeper and deeper into the brokenness of the human condition: healing the sick, advocating for the poor, calling us out on the secret sins of the heart. In Gethsemane, Christ even enters into the fear of death, so that we might be freed from it—according to St Maximus the Confessor. And finally Christ confronts death, the climax of our broken state. And by entering into death, He fills it with Himself, the Divine Presence. He fills darkness with light because He is the Light. He fills death with life because He is Life. Christ takes alienation from God and fills it with Love unshakable.

Life is very hard. We experience loss in the death of loved ones, ruptured friendships, and heartbreak. We are disappointed with our relationships, our church, our country, and especially ourselves at times. Maybe we react with addiction, or anger, with blaming or jealousy…maybe we just shut down and find ways to hide our hearts from a world too cruel to cope with.

Christ never says these things don’t happen. He never promises a life without struggle. What He does invite us into is a relationship of trusting His care for us. Of entering into His great victory. Being broken is part of the journey and part of the struggle. One day at a time, we work to bring our brokenness to Christ. It can be a place of meeting with Him. No place is beyond His touch. Know that Christ sees you and loves you and is near to your pain. It’s okay to hurt, it’s okay to feel broken. Christ works with just such things. They are, in fact, great tools for learning holiness, love, and compassion. In all places, times and circumstances, remember God Who is indeed very near to you.

Keep heart.

—Unworthy Seraphim

to heal and to teach suffering men

Saint Athanasius is remembered today. Excerpts from On the Incarnation:

The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display, the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it (not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it).

…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

…The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.

…Thus is happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.

…In ancient times before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible; all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised his body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ trample on it as it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.

…There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

a secret weapon within our divine image

When God made us in His divine image, this included a hidden divine capacity that has been revealed and perfected by Jesus Christ as our salvation. This secret weapon carried within our divine image is God’s humility and His joyful willingness to suffer. We correctly describe God as infinite and omnipotent, but He is capable of smallness to the point of death. This voluntary suffering and humiliation cannot be comprehended by the demons, and the Devil’s schemes still do not account for this factor in God’s nature. Satan’s mighty efforts are all completely undone by God’s ability to be small and to suffer. Another way to say this is that God values communion (shared life) over glory (while Satan values glory over all else). Ultimately, glory and beauty are revealed as being built upon deeper truths that we cannot typically see. In God, strength, beauty, and glory are built upon voluntary (and hidden) weakness, homeliness, and humility.

What Jesus Christ does is to join divine life and love with human sin and death (as both the first complete human and also fully God). By making humans in His own image, God made possible this seemingly impossible union between His divinity and human suffering. This hidden feature of our design (completed by Jesus Christ) means that we find God perfectly united with us only within our greatest points of need, powerlessness, suffering, and death. What Satan did not realize about divine or human nature is that they were compatible to the point that God remains all-powerful even as a dead human. Furthermore, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, humans can now be united to the fullness of God’s life only in their own deaths. This entirely undoes the schemes of Satan from the inside out (or from the final objective backwards).

Jesus Christ both accomplishes this union of divine life to human death and also shows each of us how to participate in this union. As Scott Cairns writes in The End of Suffering:

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival—in Himself.

He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them victoriously, and to show us how we might likewise move. He did not come to eclipse us, or to overrule our persons. On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the self-same unending life.

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

…A more likely translation seems to me to be “what is yet to be done.”

…What the fathers and mothers of the church have taught me is that inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask—as Christ Himself asked—that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

…In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.

As I’ve written in an earlier post:

Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

In all this, it helps to recall that sin is not primarily about legal guilt. Sin is primarily about a desire for (and an aiming at) anything other than God’s love (for which we are made and which is the only thing that enables us to fully become the unique person we are made to be). Sin is therefore a desire for anything apart from its communication of God’s love (which is a desire for a lie because all created things communicate the Creator’s love). Sin is an inclination toward (or a step toward) a falsehood and the unmaking of our unique personhood—that is our death. However, Jesus Christ has gotten to the end of this road before us. Jesus united God’s own fullness to our final self-annihilation and carried God’s life into our grave. God has met us at the very end of our desperate flight away from Him. This has made voluntary death into our ultimate weapon against sin (our tool for learning to find and to know God’s love). We are not to pursue our death, but we do accept our death as the end of our failures and as the means by which we can be united to God’s life.

Therefore, in this Advent season, do not fear smallness and suffering. Instead, wait to find God within your own smallness and suffering just as the shepherds and the wise men found Him come to us all as a baby and a refugee.

the tomb is happy

Great and Holy Friday Lamentations (Antiochian):

Verily, Hades was pierced and destroyed by the divine fire when it received in its heart him who was pierced in his side with a spear for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The tomb is happy, having become Divine when it received within it the Treasure of life, the Creator, as one who slumbereth for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The life of all was willing to lie in a grave, in accordance with the law of the dead, making it appear as the fountain of the Resurrection for the salvation, of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The Godhead of Christ was one without separation in Hades, in the tomb, in Eden, and with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

Midnight Office for Pascha (Antiochian):

Whether in hades or in the tomb or in Eden, the Godhead of Christ was indivisibly one with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: “O God our Redeemer, blessed art Thou.”

Life from Inside of Death

“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” Elder Sophrony gave this famous reply to a question from Olivier Clement regarding those who will not open their hearts to the love of God. In this Easter season, with Christ’s glorious and victorious resurrection preeminent, it is worthwhile asking if Jesus Christ is still, in any sense, within hell and among the dead. After all, we do see Jesus one time, long after the resurrection, appearing to be dead and yet enthroned in heaven. When we are introduced with John to the glorious “Lion of the tribe of Judah” enthroned in power at the right hand of the Father, what we actually see is “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:2-10). Even while reigning victoriously from heaven, Jesus Christ is revealed as a victim of sacrifice. Jesus remains, in some important sense, dead.

This idea is in keeping with many fundamentals of biblical truth: that we are united with Christ in his death as well as his life, that we are commanded to take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus, and that we feed ourselves repeatedly upon the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Many mothers and fathers of the church have taught that God is most fully revealed, in all of His glory and power, when Jesus is hanging upon the cross. Fr. Thomas Hopko shared in a lecture that, according to Hugo of St. Victor, “God wants to speak to us, to reveal himself to us, …and when he hangs on the Cross and his arms are open, the Book is open. The Book is totally open, like in the book of Revelation.”

Even before sin and death and all of creation, God was a God who emptied himself. Stephen Freeman has written about an “unfallen suffering” that is found within the life of our Trinitarian God even before creation and outside of time. Each person of the Trinity continually empties themselves in relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Within God’s inner life, there is a profound kind of self-giving, and this should not surprise us because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Therefore, God has always been one who gives Himself fully, and this God is only perfectly revealed by God’s entire self-emptying upon the cross.

Another way of understanding this is to recognize God’s entire strategy against sin and death itself. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

God’s strategy (of entry into death to commune with those who flee from him) has not changed since Christ’s resurrection. Although God’s entry into death is only accomplished in Jesus Christ, we now also participate in it through our union with Christ. God is now entering into suffering and death through all those who commune with Jesus. In fact, this is the only place to find full communion with Christ, the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We see this at work in every Christian life and when Paul says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Even after the end of time, worship around the throne of our majestic and living king will always include a recognition of his greatest moment: “his voluntary, glorious, and life-giving death” as Christian liturgies repeatedly refer to it. The resurrection power that Jesus Christ displayed on Easter morning came easily to him. His first action after this surge of life brought breath back to his dead body, was to lift the small square of cloth from his face and fold it gently before laying it down. Christ’s great labor came in the final hours of an entire adult life that was directed toward the cross, and this is all that he empowers us to do. If we would seek to exercise the power of God graciously offered to us by Christ’s resurrection, we must shoulder our own cross and pray for the strength to enter death itself. Christ reopened the gates of Paradise that had been shut behind Adam, but he set these gates up just inside the gates of Hades.

a flame to lay down

I was encouraged to rewrite this poem that I wrote recently:

Your body holds you tighter hourly.
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel.
You have your gasped breaths and throbbing heart.
This morning, your eyes bring less daylight,
and you have let go, almost, of saying.

This less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more.
Today’s snowfall blankets your roof and windows
without your knowing now, joining many here
that taught long of rest and waiting.
These small white bodies
carry downward flames from heaven,
without heat but made of fire still
that banks and burns
in quiet.

Your body holds closer its own light
as a treasure carried far,
carried up, soon, amid a snow that you’ll
know newly,
a flame to lay down before your Lord.

[Note: here’s the first draft.]

teaching long of rest and waiting

These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:

My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart

This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying

Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
In quiet

My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord

Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”

And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:

And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.

From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.

…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.