The Editor: As an Orthodox Christian I read with interest the Oct. 4 letter from Mary Reilly of Burnaby, B.C. She is “shocked” the Apostle’s Creed includes the words, “he descended into hell” and on the third day “rose again from the dead” — “of all places,” she adds.
I can empathize with her surprise at the interjection of Christ’s journey to hell and back, as these words are not recited by us Orthodox Christians who recite the Nicene (not Apostle’s) Creed every Sunday. But this leaves suspended the question, what happened on Holy Saturday when the crucified Jesus lay dead?
A lot, according to Wikipedia: “In Christian theology, the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (Latin: Descensus Christi ad Inferos) is the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell (or Hades) between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world. After his death, the soul of Jesus was supposed to have descended into the realm of the dead, which the Apostles’ Creed calls ‘hell’ in the old English usage.”
Or, if you prefer scriptural authority: “(Jesus) went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water. . .” (1 Peter 3:19–20).
In Byzantine iconography of the Resurrection, this “harrowing,” the primary imagery of Pascha or Easter, is explicit. Christ, in flowing white robes, stands astride the broken gates of Hades and from its depths pulls the figures of Adam and Eve, in a redeeming act for all humanity back to the beginning.
There are other details in the iconography but I hope that I have provided enough to reassure Mary Reilly that the new words she recites in the Creed are among the most powerful we can learn from contemplating the meaning of the Third Day. As we Orthodox sing until the Feast of the Ascension: Christ has trampled down death by death. — Myrna Kostash, Edmonton