Anastasis Icon of the Resurrection
Fr. Scott Haynes
In the Byzantine Churches icons traditionally cover the iconostasis. Central to the celebration of the Paschal season in the Byzantine Liturgy is the icon known as the “Anastasis,” the Greek word meaning “Resurrection.” This icon depicts Christ’s descent into that part of hell that traditionally called the limbo of the fathers. This is the place not of eternal damnation, which is the hell of the damned.
The “Limbus Patrum,” the Limbo of the Fathers or the Patriarchs of the Old Testament, is also called the Bosom of Abraham or Paradise. It was the temporary state of those who sinned in this life but had died in the friendship of God. But as the gates of heaven were closed until the redemption of Christ, they could not enter Heaven. The Catechism states that,
the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection...he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.
In the icon Christ stands strong, encircled with a halo from head to foot. At this feet are the smashed doors of the underworld. The chains are broken, the locks undone, and the keys of the realm of the dead are scattered. Satan cowers in the corner. The icon of the “Anastasis” shows the ancestors coming forward out of the gloom. Jesus is shown reaching out to pull Adam and Eve from their slumber into the light. Following them are Abraham, David, Ruth, Judith, Isaiah, John the Baptist and a host of others. This festive icon celebrates the fact that Christ has broken the chains of death.
When our Lord died on Calvary he descended to the “limbo of the fathers,” and at this time there was a great silence on earth, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because it seems that the King is asleep. Hell trembles with fear as the Lord of Life goes in search for our first parents, as for 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 Christ, Adam, the first man strikes his breast in terror. Christ takes him by the hand and says: "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and I will give you light. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews 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 received 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 …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.’'"
As we meditate upon the “Anastasis” icon we thank God for snatching us out of our own personal hell time and again. Each time the Lord descends to our underworld he pulls us into his own marvelous light. Our Paschal King has invited us to new life. Let us rejoice and sing. Alleluia!