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Early Christian Poetry

Adapted from Christ the Conqueror of Hell,
by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev

Russian icon of Christ leading the righteous out of Hades
[17th century, Solovetsky Monastery]

The themes of Christ's descent into Hades and his victory over hell and death are treated extensively in surviving early Christian poetry.  We do not know precisely when the short hymn known as the Pascha Troparion was composed.  It is likely, however, that it was already written in the second century (similar hymns, which were paraphrases of texts from Scripture, were an inseparable part of early Christian services) and it continues to be used in the services of the Orthodox Church.

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."

This hymn reflects a theological idea formed in the second century by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, that the redemptory sacrifice of Christ, the second Adam, is a "recapitulation" (i.e., a backward reproduction) of the life of the first-created Adam, who personifies all mankind.  In order to "restore to himself all people who came from Adam, all nations and mankind along with Adam himself," Christ systematically goes through all the main stages of human life so that the effects of the fall of Adam might be corrected in each of them.  By his becoming the "first-born of the of the dead" [Colossians 1.18], Christ renews people for the divine life, "having himself become the first of the living, just as Adam became the first of the dying" [Irenaeus , Against Heresies, 3.20.3].  Christ's death, therefore, becomes a victory over death, and his resurrection brings life and resurrection to the dead.  The doctrine of Christ's descent into Hades is later developed in works of liturgical poetry precisely in this vein.

The descent of Christ into Hades is also reflected in hymns interpolated in the apocryphal "Acts of Thomas," dated to the first half of the third century and preserved in Syriac, Greek, Armenian, Ethiopic, and two Latin versions.  The Syriac version of the "Acts," which is believed to be the original, contains a hymn called the "Song of Praise of Thomas the Apostle."  It is a narrative about Christ putting the devil to death and bringing the hope of resurrection into Sheol:

Praised by you, the Son, the adored Fruit,
Who rose upon all in mercy,
And put on our humanity, and slew our adversary.....
Glorified by you, the Father omnipotent,
Who has sent to us your living and life-giving fruit,
And he reconciled by the blood of the cross
Your mercy with your creatures....

The angels glorify you on high through your Messiah,
Who became peace and hope to the dead in Sheol,
Who came to life and were raised....

The same subject also occurs in another passage when Judas Thomas [Editor's Note:  In Syriac texts, the Apostle Thomas is often called "Judas Thomas"] is forced by the king to pray for his daughter at the marriage feast.  He addresses himself to Christ in this fashion:

Our Lord, companion of his servants....
You have shown the glory of your Godhead,
In your long-suffering towards our manhood,
When you hurled the evil one from his power,
And called with your voice to the dead and they became alive....
And you descended into Sheol and went to its uttermost end;
And opened its gates and brought out its prisoners,
And trod for them the path [leading] above by the nature of your Godhead.

In the Greek version of "The Acts of the Thomas," which is significantly different from the Syriac original, there is the following prayer: "Jesus Christ, Son of compassion and perfect Savior, Christ, Son of the living God, the undaunted power that has overthrown the enemy, and the voice that was heard of the rulers, and made all their powers to quake, the ambassador that was sent from the height and came down even unto hell, who did open the doors and bring up thence them that for many ages were shut up in the treasury of darkness."

Though in this text the liberation of all people from Hades would seem to be implied, in the following one from "The Acts of Thomas" the question exclusively concerns those who "fled unto" Christ:

"O companion and defender and hope of the weak and confidence of the poor, refuge, and lodging of the weary; voice that came forth of the height, comforter dwelling in the midst; port and harbor of them that pass through the regions of the rulers, physician that heals without payment, who among men was crucified for many; who did go down into hell with great might; the sight of whom the princes of death endured not; you came up wth great glory, and gathering all them that fled unto you did prepare a way, and in your footsteps they all journeyed whom you redeemed; and you brought them into your own fold and joined them with your sheep."

Works of early Christian hymnography bear considerable signficance since their many and varied motifs are later developed in medieval liturgical poetry.  In particular, numerous ideas from Saint Melito of Sardis', On Easter, were later incorporated into the liturgical texts for Good Friday and Great Saturday.  The diverse themes from the "Odes of Solomon" were expanded upon in the poems by Saint Romanos the Melodist and his Byzantine disciples.  The theme of the Descent into Hades, found in all the writings of the second century, never disappears from Christian poetry, but goes from one work to another, from one generation of hymnographers to another, until it becomes firmly established in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church.