Last night I was privileged to sing an abbreviated form of the Jerusalem Mattins at a small Catholic Ukrainian church with friends. The lights were all dimmed, and the six of us stood on each side of the symbolic tomb that is shrouded and mourned during Good Friday vespers, backed by the instruments of the Messiah’s torment. We sang without a priest, the long, exhausting outpouring of grief that replicates the dark night after his burial in Joseph’s tomb.
“The noble Joseph took down your most pure body from the cross. He wrapped it in a clean shroud and with fragrant spices laid it in burial in a new tomb.”
The order of Mattins is from early morning on Holy Saturday—this day—when Christ had descended into Hell. Descendit ad infernos, is how the Apostle’s Creed describes it; the quiet before the storm of the resurrection. The mother and disciples of Jesus could not see where he went, except for the tomb. Mary Magdalen and “the other Mary” sat at the sepulchre that night, keeping the first watch. From the earthly point of view, there was nothing but silence and grief, the exhaustion that comes from having spent a whole day watching Hope be murdered by the brutalities of paganism and the pettiness of those knotted to the status quo.
There has been a movement in the last century to recontextualize the Descent into Hell, to have the bleakness of the apostles’ grief find a mirror in the nether realms. This speculative theology has Jesus suffering the pains of damnation in the bowels of Dis, even after his final words of Consummatum est. The ancient Mattins, however, foreshadows the glory of the resurrection by showing the victory of his descent.
“O Lord my God, I sing a hymn of farewell to you; for, by your burial, you open for me the gates of life, destroying Death and Hades by your death…. You have gone down into the deepest recesses of the earth, so that the entire universe may be filled with your glory.”
“At your coming, O Word, Hades was filled with bitterness; for it saw a mortal deified, a man covered with wounds, who was yet an all-powerful victor; at this sight, Hades was gripped with terror.”
The theo-drama of the death and descent, then, is in its ironic table-turning: Death and Hades (symbols of the Devil’s power) think themselves victorious, but in their success are destroyed by their victim. Death is swallowed up by the victim it has swallowed; Hades is cast into the lake of fire.
“Hades was struck in the heart when it received the One whose side was wounded by the lance of the soldier; it groaned aloud as it was consumed by the divine fire.”
This is the drama of Holy Saturday. The day when all seemed darkest on the earth was the day when Hell was filled with divine glory and the Second Adam freed those on damnation’s fringe. The day whose glory was so intense that it finally erupted in Joseph’s tomb, leading captivity captive. When Christ showed the keys of Death and Hell to St. John, it was because he had violently wrested them from Satan’s grasp.
But for those left on earth, they saw only darkness and grief. It is with the grieving Theotokos that we match our morning song:
“Gone the Light the world knew. Gone the Light that was mine. O my Jesus, Thou art all of my heart’s desire; So the Virgin spake lamenting at Thy grave.”
Christ is invading the Devil’s domain and preaching to the captives. We on earth hear only silence and the painful echoes of his passion. The dead are lively, the living deathly. It is ironic. It is almost—almost—funny.
The punchline is about to drop.