LOS ANGELES, Calif.—Local Jerusalemites of Jesus’ day had a nickname for the Akra ridge that rose up out of the depths of the Tyropoean, or “cheesemongers” valley and grew especially rugged above the Genath Gate, the ancient city's far western point of entry: They called it “Golgotha"— Aramaic for “Skull Place.” (Calvary comes from calvarium, “skull,” the Vulgate Bible's Latin rendition.) It was a gruesomely apt designation. The area, once used as a quarry by David and Solomon's builders (ancient quarry-stones lined up for lifting can still be viewed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher's Franciscan sacristy), was, by the time of Jesus, an epic monument to the reality of death: a site of Roman executions in the middle of a Jewish graveyard.
In fact, Calvary, the place of execution, far from the “green hill topped with triple crosses” of popular imagination, appears to have been a 35-foot high piece of gray quarried rock into which a permanent stake had been fixed by the Romans. Today, it is covered by a marble structure in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on top of which two chapels—one Eastern Orthodox, one Roman Catholic—mark the place of the Crucifixion. (Recently, Greek Orthodox designers have peeled off some of the marble encasement to reveal, under glass, a large section of the stone surface and the socket into which the stake and crossbeam were once lowered.) The real Calvary, in keeping with its grim function, was about as romantic as an electric chair.
Unlike their modern English and American counterparts, ancient Jewish cemeteries were anything but places for a pleasant Sunday outing. (The Gospel of John's use of the word kepos, or “garden” in his description of the burial place of Christ (cf. 18:1) likely refers to the olive orchards that, even today, ring the city's walls.) Abandoned quarries like the one outside the Genath Gate were preferred cemetery locations. They were outside the city proper (a prescription of Jewish law), and they were practical: Masons would have already cut large cavities in the rock, making tomb construction cost-effective. Their stark, lonely cave faces sealed with large round stones—such places were doorways to a special world—were a forbidden kingdom. “The land of the shadow of death,” the Psalms called it, a world cut off, geographically and spiritually, from “the land of the living.’
For Jews, the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead was complete, absolute. Even casual contact with grave cloths or with a corpse rendered a person ritually unclean.
"He that touches the dead body of any person,” the Book of Numbers declares, “shall be [ritually] unclean seven days; he shall cleanse himself with water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean” (19:11-12).
For priests, the merest touch of his shadow on a dead body required the burning of special sacrifices and a night of ritual ablutions. (This may well be one of the reasons that the Levite, or Temple official, in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37), was reluctant to come to the aid of the man left half dead at the side of the road. Should the victim, on inspection, have proved a corpse, he would not have been able to officiate in the Temple and would have had to go to some expense to perform the necessary purifications.)
And unlike the pagans, Jews were forbidden, under pain of exclusion from the people, to traffic with ghosts, mediums, and oracles, to attempt to make any kind of contact with the dead.
"You shall not practice augury or witchcraft …’ the Lord commands in the Book of Leviticus. “Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them” (19:26, 31).
This was the most serious kind of sacrilege—to attempt to bridge the impenetrable divide which God had established between the living and the dead. The Old Testament poets had a gripping word to refer to this reality, the numb, noiseless world into which the dead retreated: She'ol, literally, the “hollow place.’ To die was “to go down into the silence.’
"The dead shall not praise the Lord, nor those who go down into the Silence,” declares the psalmist, “but we who live bless the Lord now and forever” (Ps 113:17).
The Greeks entertained similar, though not identical notions in their concept of the “underworld,” or Hades, where the dead existed in a state of suspended animation—quite literally, as eternal shadows of themselves.
For early Christianity, and for Eastern Christianity today, the central aspect of the resurrection of Jesus is not so much the dawn scene of angels and the spice-bearing women at the tomb, but the even more dramatic harrowing of hell, when the crucified broke the eternal silence of the grave, shattered the divisions between the living and the dead, and plundered death's forbidden realm.
As the famous Byzantine verse, chanted over and over during the Easter liturgy, exults: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and granting life to those in the tomb.’ In that sense, Easter, more than anything else, is the celebration of the death of death.
This is how Matthew's Gospel sets up the scene:
"And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold … the earth shook and the rocks were split; the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of their tombs after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (27:50-53).
For Matthew, the death-cry of Jesus is not a shriek of terror, or agony in the face of extinction, but a warrior's shout. The Son of God, the deathless one, descends by means of the cross like a champion into the kingdom of death to annihilate it forever.
"Our Lord's voice rang out thunderously in Sheol,” the fourth century Christian poet St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote, echoing Matthew, in one of his dramatic Nibisene hymns: “tearing open each grave, one by one. Terrible pangs seized hold of death in Sheol; where light had never been seen, rays shone out from the angels who had entered to bring out the dead to meet the dead one who has given life to all.’
In a similar vein, fourth-century Church Father St. John Chrysostom exults in his famous “resurrection homily,” read in the Byzantine tradition at every Easter Matins service:
"… Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it…. When Isaiah foresaw all this, he cried out: ‘O Hades, you have been angered by encountering him in the nether world.’ Hades is angered because it has been frustrated, it is angered because it has been mocked, it is angered because is has been destroyed…. [Hades] seized a body, and discovered God; it seized earth and encountered heaven; it seized the visible and was overcome by the invisible.’
Church historian Henry Chadwick calls this notion of Jesus despoiling the kingdom of death “the decisive moment in the redemption process,” involving, as it does, the deliverance of history, of the past as well as a future promise of life.
That Jesus’ rescue of the dead in the underworld was the key resurrection image for the early Church is clear from the ancient Symbolum Apostolorum, the Apostles’ Creed. After confessing our belief in Christ's death and resurrection, we add the words: “He descended to the dead.’
There is also the testimony of early Christian iconography.
While much medieval and renaissance art shows Jesus rising bodily from the tomb, the earliest Christian iconography preserves the New Testament's “silence” about the manner in which the Resurrection took place, and focuses instead on representations of the harrowing of hell (hell here, not the inferno, but a synonym for Hades, the underworld).
In most of these dramatic images (still the most popular form of resurrection icon in the Christian East), a white or gold robed Christ, his cloak flowing behind him, descends with angels bearing the instruments of the passion into the pit of death. Treading upon the gates of death, which are shown thrown off their hinges and flung to the ground, Christ is surrounded by the just of the old covenant (often represented by Moses, King David, and St. John the Baptist). But, as the central “action” of the icon, Christ's arms are outstretched to raise the shapes of Adam and Eve, humanity's first parents, from their tombs. In the persons of Adam and Eve, the whole of human history is being rescued.
As art historian Michel Berger has written: “Christ descended to the depths of the underworld, the abode of the dead, and so achieved the last step in his abasement (kenosis, self-emptying) by placing himself at the very heart of the fallen creation.’
While this focus on the harrowing of hell is not theologically popular today, the Fathers of the Church rise to the theme with some of the most inspired writing in all religious literature. Take this example from an ancient sermon:
"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…. He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve…. Taking Adam by the hand, he raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper and rise from the dead and Christ shall give you light…. Rise, and let us leave this place…. 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 which has been prepared for you from all eternity.’”
But there is much more to the harrowing of hell than thrilling imagery.
If Jesus truly came into the world, as the Church fathers teach, to seek and find our ancient ancestors hidden deep in the prison of death, that has implications for us in the present as well, for our own appropriation of the message of Easter. As many commentators have stressed, the despoiling of Hades shows us a Christ filled the power of an indestructible life and with a love that cannot be stopped. Will he spare any effort to seek us, here and now, in our own individual darkness, whatever that may be? And if death itself could not stop him, is there any power in the universe that can restrain his mercy?
"He himself likewise partook of the same [human] nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to bondage their whole lives long” (Heb 2:14-15).
Or, in the words of St. John Chrysostom's Easter sermon: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are abolished! Christ is risen and the demons are cast down! Christ is risen and life is freed! Christ is risen and the tombs are emptied of their dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of all those who had fallen asleep.’
Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.