Pentecost and the Liturgy of Hades

pentecostkneelPascha (Easter) comes with a great note of joy in the Christian world. Christ is risen from the dead and our hearts rejoice. That joy begins to wane as the days pass. Our lives settle back down to the mundane tasks at hand. After 40 days, the Church marks the Feast of the Ascension, often attended by only a handful of the faithful (Rome has more-or-less moved the Ascension to a Sunday to make it easier). Some excitement returns with the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, which conveniently falls on a Sunday making its observance easier in a too-busy-to-notice world. Lost in all of this, however, is a subtext (perhaps it is the main text).

It is a liturgical practice that in Orthodoxy begins some weeks before Great Lent. It is a frontal assault on Hades.

The traditional name for these celebrations is “Soul Saturdays.” They are celebrations of the Divine Liturgy on Saturday mornings offered for the souls of the departed. Most of the Saturdays in Great Lent have them. They make a fitting prelude for Holy Week and Pascha. At Pascha, Christ Himself “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life.” This is the Great and Holy Sabbath – the true and Great Soul Saturday. This is the great theme of Pascha itself. Christ’s Resurrection is, strangely, not so much about Christ as it is about Christ’s action. Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death. Orthodoxy views Christ’s Holy Week, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection as one unending, uninterrupted assault on Hades. This is the great mystery of Pascha – the destruction of death and Hades. Death is the “last enemy.” Those who forget this are like soldiers who have forgotten the purpose of the war in which they fight.

And so the battle forms a significant part of the liturgical effort of the Church. The boldness of the third prayer is quite striking (this is the first portion):

Priest: O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, coeternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! … Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them.

Please forgive my editing of a very long prayer, thank you, St. Basil.

I can recall the first time I offered this prayer in my priesthood. I had a copy in front of me, but had not read it before the service, nor had I ever heard it. I trembled as I offered the words above…astounded by their boldness. I had never heard such boldness before the Throne of God within the walls of the Church itself. It is also a reminder of the weakness and infirmity of the legal imagery of salvation. The legal view requires of God that He be the enforcer of Hades. To such a prayer He could only reply: “I cannot grant such things because of my Justice!”

The Descent of Christ into Hades itself demonstrates God’s willingness towards our salvation. And the prayer’s imagery here reveals God’s strength:

Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.

On the Saturday before Pentecost, some 49 days after Pascha, the Church offers the last in the cycle of Soul Saturdays. And on Pentecost itself, and now on bended knee, it boldly goes where only Christ has gone before in victory. As was proclaimed in the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom:

Christ is risen! And not one of the dead is left in the grave, for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

I’ll leave it for others to trouble themselves about the meaning of such bold preaching.

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.



8 responses to “Pentecost and the Liturgy of Hades”

  1. sergieyes Avatar

    The Liturgy is named Psycho Sabaton in transliterated Greek. It’s hard to find much mention of it. However, considering the prevalence of psychological maladies in the West, one wonders whether its suppression isn’t some kind of denial. Here are some other mentions of it. BTW, I am VERY enthusiastic about this, as it is part of Orthodox Psychotherapy.

    Search Results
    Saturday of Souls – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Saturday of Souls (or Soul Saturday) is a day set aside for commemoration of the dead within the liturgical year of the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic …
    Third Saturday of Souls — Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of … › … › Sermons
    Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
    The Third Saturday of Souls serves to remind us that the connection between preservation of purity and death is as close for us Christians as it is for the ermine.
    Saturday, the Day of Souls – Orthodox Research Institute…/
    The Orthodox Research Institute is a leading source for information, publications and … From the early times, our Church dedicated Saturday to the souls.
    Orthodox Liturgical Calendar – Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox …
    The holy days of the Greek Orthodox Church are divided into the major or great feast days that … First Saturday of Souls, February 22, February 14. Meat Fare …
    MYSTAGOGY: Saturday Before Meatfare: Saturday of Souls…/
    Feb 25, 2011 – Latin America: Peoples in Search of Orthodoxy · Egyptian Armed Forces ….. We always commemorate souls on Saturday, because Sabbaton …
    Memorial Services/Saturday of Souls & Scheduling Guidelines › About Our Parish › Sacrament Info (Bapt/Wed)
    Memorial Services/Saturday of Souls & Scheduling Guidelines … MEMORIAL SERVICE POLICY OF ASSUMPTION GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH. Memorial …
    Ecclesiastical Dates | St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church › Our Faith
    1st Saturday of Souls, Feb 26, Feb 18, Mar 09, Feb 22. Meatfare, Feb 07, Feb 19 … Sunday of Orthodoxy, Mar 13, Mar 04, Mar 24, Mar 09. Saturday of Lazurus …
    Saturday of the Dead | Fr. Peter Michael Preble
    Mar 8, 2013 – The Orthodox commemoration of the Dead. … We always remember the souls of the dead on the Sabbath, for the Sabbath (Saturday) is the day …
    Orthodox Way of Life: Saturday of Souls
    Feb 26, 2011 – Saturday of Souls. Reading from the Synaxarion. Through the Apostolic Constitutions (Book VIII, ch. 42), the Church of Christ has received the …
    Saturday of Souls – Encyclopedia – The Free Dictionary
    Dates vary with most in February through May. Soul Saturdays are a series of Saturdays set aside in the liturgical calendar of Eastern and Greek Orthodox …

  2. Karen Avatar

    I just finished reading separate contemporary accounts by two people who had what are termed “near-death” experiences, where they experienced something of what is beyond death (Hades), but by the grace of Christ and completely against all odds returned to the body to tell about it. In one case, faith was reaffirmed, directed and strengthened. In the other, a seed planted in Sunday school and all but dead and forgotten was the key to a desperate prayer that saved a man’s soul from the depths of darkness and torment into which by his egocentric life he had been plunged upon leaving his ravaged body. (He later learned that a nun who had taken one of his art classes had been praying for her atheist teacher for 13 years.) Though neither of these authors was formally an Orthodox Christian, the convictions both formed out of their experiences were remarkably compatible with Orthodox teaching about the spiritual nature of things and the dynamics of the soul’s life beyond death. In both cases, lives were dramatically changed and reoriented in a very Orthodox direction by such a direct encounter with Christ in His love beyond the bounds of life in this earthly body. It was also clear the prayers of many were the cause of saving outcomes in each case.

    It is an unspeakable comfort that the Church prays for and encourages prayer for all, not least of all departed souls. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Truly, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

  3. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Karen, for reminding of that “unspeakable comfort”.

    May I ask the prayers of this community for my father? He is near death (or perhaps I should say, near Life, for our Savior has trampled down death).

    I found these words last evening and they too were very comforting:

    St. Seraphim of Sarov exclaims: “What joy, what exultation await the soul when God’s Angels come to take it.”

  4. Jane Avatar

    I will pray for your father, Mary. My thoughts are with you.

    (We haven’t “met”, but I’ve often benefited from reading your blog and comments here.)

  5. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    May the Lord grant your father a peaceful, holy and painless passing beyond the curtain, Mary.


  6. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you both, and any others who joined in praying for my father. He fell asleep in the Lord yesterday evening.

    My father lived his life for Christ and now has gone to live in full unity with Him. Glory to God for all things…

  7. Dino Avatar

    May the Lord rest his soul in the company of His Saints.
    From death unto Life and from Earth unto Heaven.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    May his memory be eternal.

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