Preaching to the Dead

The Orthodox mark Holy Saturday (the day before Christ’s Resurrection) as the day in which He descends to the dead and preaches to the departed spirits (1 Peter 3:18-19). There is a long history of wonderful sermons on this topic.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (early 5th century) says: “For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, Christ left the devil there abandoned and lonely” (7th Paschal Homily 2, PG 77, 552 A).
St. Ephipanius of Cyprus offers these thoughts on the day:
Something strange is happening … there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendents I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.For your sake I, your God, become your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I recieved in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

All of which is better than standing there abandoned and lonely.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





12 responses to “Preaching to the Dead”

  1. […] — Orthodox Christianity var pulltime = 'Fri, 13 Apr 2012 20:13:53 +0000';1) Preaching to the Dead fatherstephen on Friday, Apr […]

  2. Darlene Avatar

    “I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.”


    Could you elaborate on this particular point? I know that we are to judge angels, but I am perplexed as to the reference that cherubim will “worship us as God.”

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yeah, it’s a bit strong. It’s a way of saying that we become “partakers of the divine nature” as it says in Scripture. It certainly cannot mean worship us as God as God alone is God. But it is certainly a very strong statement.
    Often, there is confusion created within translations. We have become accustomed to “worship” meaning what is given to God alone, with “veneration” or “honor” being that relative honor we give to others. English has not always made this distinction. The old English marriage service said, “With my body I do thee worship…,” for example. There are many other instances of this.
    Were I translating this passage today, it would read, “honor us as gods…” or something like that.
    I hope this is helpful. It’s certainly confusing. I occasionally run across this in older English translations (or less than careful translations) in Orthodox liturgical texts.
    Kala Pascha!

  4. Andrew Avatar

    Father, if I may: This is kalokagathia. A reflection on the divine condescension of the Eternal God. I think of course of Christ’s washing of the feet and John 14:9 (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father”).

  5. Canadian Avatar

    Darlene, Father,
    “I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.”

    I took this as a play on the two “Adam’s”. Christ had to guard the entrance to eden with cherubim after Adam’s fall, but the second Adam has made our humanity to be the object of their worship in the person of the divine Son and because we are now one with him, we are included in the cherubim’s honor in a derivative but real way.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s a very felicitous reading. I like it.

    Epiphanius is also pre-chalcedonian (before 451 a.d.) and so his use of words is less precise than they would become. So he can say, “We are one person,” which would not have been said later. It’s a wonderful homily and contains very much the same thrust as found in many other Paschal homilies. It’s a primary example of why there is Orthodox opposition to the juridical model of the atonement (penal substitution). This homily makes no sense in a juridical model, and none of the other homilies either. They don’t make sense because the juridical model is largely unknown to them and how they read the NT, and understand the work of Christ. When this is read – you are at the very heart of the Orthodox Christian faith – the faith of the Fathers. It is the most exciting, truly good news that I can possibly imagine.

  7. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    “All of which is better than standing there abandoned and lonely.” Wish I could have sent this to my cousin in time – he committed suicide yesterday. He was not a believer. Talk about feeling Abandoned and Lonely…

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,
    My deepest sorrow and prayers for your loss. The promise that Christ enters Hades and delivers us (the abandoned and lonely) is great hope and comfort.

  9. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Thank you, Father. The abandonment and loneliness I referred to was my cousin’s. There is a tradition that during this week, the gates of Heaven stand open for all to enter without judgement, who struggled to serve God on this earth. As I noted, my cousin was not one of those, but he was not an enemy of God, either – just a child of the times. It is my hope that God’s mercy extends to him, also.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,
    I understood your reference – my hope and comfort was for your cousin – because the Savior comes to the abandoned and the lonely. In the timeless reality of the Kingdom of God – the doors always stand open. It is always Bright Week – there is no other time. The hope we hold for Bright Week is nothing less than the hope of the Gospel – for He is a good God and loves mankind.

    I believe those who are not the enemies of God will find God’s mercy quicker than many of us who claim to be His friends.

  11. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Thanks again, Father. Wishing you and all your family all the joys of this most joyous season – you have given me great comfort, and I think you’re probably right about God’s so-called friends and those who are simply not His enemies. “Much will be asked,” etc.

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