Today is Holy Saturday. Jesus was crucified yesterday. He will rise tomorrow. But what is happening today? Anything? Are we just waiting around while Jesus lies dead in the tomb?
According to the teachings of the Apostolic Church, when Jesus died He did not go to heaven immediately. The church teaches that when Jesus died on the cross, He woke up, and went to Hell.
The Armenian Church has three Creeds. Everyone is familiar with the Nicene Creed (the Havadamk, “We Believe in One God”), which is said during Badarak. There are also two other creeds: the Creed of Gregory of Datev (said prior to the beginning of the first service of the day), and the Apostles’ Creed. Part of the Apostle’s Creed states concerning Jesus:
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
According to the teachings of our church, when Jesus was dead and entombed, He entered into Hell. Our church teaches that Jesus entered Hell for two reasons: First, to free the righteous people who had died in faith, and second, to destroy the power of the devil.
Freeing the Righteous Imprisoned in Hell
One of our hymns describes Jesus freeing people imprisoned in Hell in this way:
By Your life-creating death, You destroyed the pains of death, and having descended into Hell, You led forth with you the souls of the righteous prophets into the light most pure. Through their intercession have mercy on us, O Christ.
This beautifully rich hymn explains to us that Jesus’ death was life giving. We do not only say Jesus died on the cross, we also saw that he conquered death on the cross. In this sense, Jesus’ death brings life to those of us who had only Hell to look forward to. The hymn also reminds us that the righteous ones whom Jesus raised out of Hell are praying for us. They are body and member of the church triumphant.
In the prayers of the Armenian Church we regularly remember the presence of the saints and of the myriad of angels who are present and praying for us. Today, due to Covid-19 we often hear it said that “the churches are empty.” But this is not the case. The church is always full of countless saints and angels who intercede for us before our Heavenly Father. During every liturgy, millions of souls are present and praying. Even though we may not see them, they are present.
Destroying the Power of the Devil
One of our hymns vividly describes the moment when Jesus entered Hell in this way:
Seized with terror, Hell began to tremble. When You gave Your soul to the Father, You descended into the lowest depth of Hell, into the prison of death and darkness. There, You bound the prince and father of death.
In ‘binding the devil’ Jesus effectively negated the power of the devil. The death of Christ means we no longer fear death. We no longer need to fear entering into a place of eternal suffering. According to our church Fathers, through Jesus’ death, He destroyed death. Jesus put death to death.
Even though on the surface it may have seemed to an onlooker that on Holy Saturday nothing was happening, in fact God was at work, securing eternal victory for us. God is always working in our best interest. Even when we cannot see what He is doing, rest assured he is at work today too. As Christians we believe that God is both working, and using everything the devil meant for evil, to bring about blessings for us.
When the Patriarch Joseph was sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery, God used their evil act to bring about blessings. For God raised up Joseph within Egypt to become second in command, only Pharaoh was above Him. A great famine came upon the land, but Joseph had been granted insight to know the famine was coming, so he saved seven years of food for the Egyptians and those on the outskirts of Egypt. What Joseph’s brothers intended for evil God used for good. The land of Egypt and even Joseph’s family were kept from destruction. Joseph himself stated to his brothers, when they came to Him begging for food: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)
We are blessed that God has revealed to us that He is always working to bring about great blessings. Scripture reminds us: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God was working to bring great blessings to the Egyptians during the time of Joseph. God was working to bring about salvation when Jesus was lying dead in the tomb. God is active and working to bring forth great blessings for us today, even in the midst of this pandemic, which, in God’s eyes, is puny.
As we await the passing of this storm, let us be assured and confident that God is at work. We are, of course, called daily to repentance. According to the teachings of the church, all of our suffering contains within it a call for repentance. Yet while we repent we do so with faith and confidence that God is bringing forth great blessings.
One day, when we look back at this difficult time, we will realize how deeply God was blessing us by bringing us through this pandemic. Let us remain mindful of how God has acted historically, behind the scenes, during difficult times. Let us recall Jesus’ descent into hell, and Joseph’s being sold into slavery, and Gregory’s thirteen years of imprisonment. In every case, God was bringing forth great blessings, not visible with the naked eye, but perfectly visible through the eyes of faith. Instead of waiting until tomorrow to celebrate the blessings God will give us from this trial, let us choose to rejoice today, confident that God is blessing us now, and that he will bless us and bless the world throughout this pandemic, and even in its’ wake. In the words of St. Paul:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
By Fr. Tavit Boyajian, pastor of Sts. Joachim and Anne Armenian Church, Palos Heights, IL.
Above: The Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.