December 4, 2021
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Christ’s Descent Into Hell Icon: A Source of Strength for Christian Living

Christ’s Descent Into Hell Icon: A Source of Strength for Christian Living

Icons have always fascinated me. The more I look at them the more they speak to me. The more I fix my gaze upon them the more they tell me not just about themselves but openly reveal to me my life journey towards the Lord Jesus Christ.

As I searched unendingly so as to know why all this, I have met with a very erudite author on icons. His name is Paul Evdokimov. In fact, in his book The Art of the Icon: A theology of Beauty, this Russian-Orthodox theologian gives a very profound definition of what an icon really is. He says that an icon is, “in itself the presence of what is symbolized. It fulfills the function of revealing a meaning and at the same time it becomes an expressive and effective container of the presence”. Having said that the presence that the symbol presents is always represented indirectly. Hence, the icon becomes a sort of sacrament inasmuch as it becomes the medium for God’s personal presence.

An icon that always spoke to me in a particular way is surely that of Christ’s Descent into Hell. Indeed, at the Chapel of the Community “Cenacolo” in Medjugorje one can see this huge icon. The latter is an interpretation of a recurrent traditional theme within the Orthodox Christian iconography, namely the Resurrected Lord who descends into the underworld to bring new life to those who have died.

This icon displays some details which are worth appreciating. To begin with, as one looks at it for the first time, one notices that the gates of Hell have been broken and torn apart. The powerful symbolism behind such an act is that the power of death has been destroyed thanks to the life-giving Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, the icon also shows Jesus who is reaching out to Adam and Eve in the greatest act of solidarity he could ever do to them: that of pulling them out of the grave. This extraordinary act, done by Jesus, unravels the wonderful reality that his life-giving Grace is practically offered to all humankind, even back to the beginnings of humanity.

When one looks to the left one immediately encounters three characters. These are the Hebrew kings David and Solomon. The last figure is Elijah, who is considered as a prototype of John the Baptizer. When one looks to the right, the figures one sees there can differ from icon to icon. However, normally they personify the “just ones” who served God prior Christ’s coming in the world. They can be Moses and Abel or even the three young men who gave the most astounding witness to God as the book of Daniel tells us. Traditionally, icons would portray three figures on this side. Nonetheless, this particular Cenacolo icon depicts four figures instead of the usual three. But why is this so?

There is an interesting history at the background of this detail. Let us not forget that this Cenacolo icon was, in fact, written by three young men who were Community residents. It needs to be said that no one of them possessed artistic skills. Hence, their writing of the icon could be said to be the result of duty, devotion and love. Another aspect which should be mentioned here is the fact that the process, thanks to which the icon came into being, is completely soaked by their big struggle to put an end to their bonds of addiction. These youths really wanted Christ to break all the chains they had been enchained with throughout their troubled lives. They wanted to be liberated from that harsh abandonment which had divested them from the precious gift of life. The very little that was left in their hands when they became part of the Cenacolo Community, these three heroic young men entrusted it to Christ who used them to write such a big and inspiring work of art: his magnificent Resurrection.

But was it Christ’s Resurrection alone that was depicted or was it also their resurrection too with Christ, as the icon seems to attest?  Listening to a young community member called Paul, who already as a 14-year-old found himself drowning in the drug and alcohol addiction, one seems to reach the conclusion that this icon for them means their very life. Paul and the other men of the Community could easily see themselves in the place of the crouching and elderly Adam and Eve. Paul was so honest about it when he openly said: “Drugs made us feel old. Drugs robbed us of our lives.” However, Jesus kept living his messianic program of liberating the captives even in such a Hades situation these men were living in. In fact, Christ reached them in that place of despair they were in and lovingly pulled them free to bring them into his light. He told us in the Johannine Gospel: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12). As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (John 9:5).

In the icon there is the fourth figure, an un-bearded and standing closest figure to Jesus which is worth mentioning. Paul said: “This figure is Nicola, the young man loved by the Cenacolo Community who had died of an Aids related illness.” Paul defined Nicola’s life and death in the Community as a witness of patience, service and love for his fellow brothers. The latter, touched as they were by his holy example, regarded him to be one of the “just ones”, a prophet or a “saint.” For that matter they wanted him to be commemorated in the icon. Furthermore, they wanted him to protect the Community. In this way, they wanted to share in the hope and the joy of his resurrection with Jesus.

Nicola’s witness of his life and death lived in such a renewed manner and the deepest intimacy in, with and through Christ, reminds me of those undying words we annually read in the second reading of the office of readings of Holy Saturday:

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but 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 I make them worship you as 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.”

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! What a source of great strength for Christian living! 

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap