Holy Saturday: Something strange is happening

Icon of Christ raising Adam and Eve out of Hades
Icon of Christ raising Adam and Eve out of Hades

The Holy Saturday sermon of Saint Melito, Bishop of Sardis (+180AD)

The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.

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 now 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 hades trembles with fear.

Christ has gone to search for our first parent, Adam, 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, for he 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: “May 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, you who sleep, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

He says: “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants 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. O sleeper, I order you to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hades.

“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 are one and we cannot be separated.

“For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, who dwell above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of mankind, 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.

“I once breathed life into you in the beginning; see on my face the spit I received in order to restore life to you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your damaged nature in my likeness. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs on 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 hades. The spear that pierced me has sheathed the fiery 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 the heavens. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but look and see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you, as slaves are guarded, but now I cause them to bow to you as to 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.”

Icon of Christ raising Adam and Eve out of Hades This classic icon is in the dome of the Kariye Mosque, formerly the Church of the Holy Savior, in Chora, Istanbul. Christ, having broken down the gates of Hades, pulls Adam and Eve out of their tombs as kings and saints from past ages watch. As he tramples on the fallen doors, under his feet are strewn broken locks and chains. At this resolution it is not clear but the bound, powerless figure of Death or Hades likewise lies in the darkness under Christ’s feet. In the flesh, Christ rests on the Sabbath, while in the spirit he frees all the prisoners of death.