Today we remember Christ, the conqueror of Hades. For death could not restrain Him, but He broke the bounds of death to bring the faithful departed to eternal life. While His Body lay in the tomb, His soul was liberating the just. Let us praise the Lord's mighty work this day, and let the following words of the great Aphrahat the Syrian (270-345) help us recall Jesus' glorious victory:
For when Adam transgressed the commandment whereby the sentence of death was passed upon his progeny, Death hoped that he would bind fast all the sons of man and would be king over them for ever. But when Moses came, he proclaimed the resurrection, and Death knew that his kingdom is to be made void. For Moses said:— Reuben shall live and not die, and shall be in number (Deuteronomy 33:6). And when the Holy One called Moses from the bush he said thus to him:— I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob (Exodus 3:6). When Death heard this utterance, he trembled and feared and was terrified and was perturbed, and knew that he had not become king for ever over the children of Adam. From the hour that he heard God saying to Moses:— I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, Death smote his hands together, for he learned that God is King of the dead and of the living, and that it is appointed to the children of Adam to come forth from his darkness, and arise with their bodies. And observe that our Redeemer Jesus also, when He repeated this utterance to the Sadducees, when they were disputing with Him about the Resurrection of the dead, thus said:— God is not (God) of the dead, for all are alive unto Him (Luke 20:38).
And that God might make known to Death that his authority is not for ever over all the progeny of the world, He translated Enoch to Himself, because he was well-pleasing, and made him deathless. And again He took up Elijah to heaven, and Death had no dominion over him. And Hannah said:— The Lord makes to die and causes to live; He brings down to Sheol and raises up (1 Samuel 2:6). Furthermore Moses said as from the mouth of God:— I make to die and I cause to live (Deuteronomy 32:39). Again the Prophet Isaiah also said:— Your dead shall live, and their dead bodies shall rise again; and the sleepers of the dust shall be awakened, and shall glorify You (Isaiah 26:19). When Death heard all these things, amazement seized him, and he sat him down in mourning.
And when Jesus, the slayer of Death, came, and clothed Himself in a Body from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in His Body, and tasted death; and when (Death) perceived thereby that He had come down unto him, he was shaken from his place and was agitated when he saw Jesus; and he closed his gates and was not willing to receive Him. Then He burst his gates, and entered into him, and began to despoil all his possessions. But when the dead saw light in the darkness, they lifted up their heads from the bondage of death, and looked forth, and saw the splendour of the King Messiah. Then the powers of the darkness of Death sat in mourning, for he was degraded from his authority. Death tasted the medicine that was deadly to him, and his hands dropped down, and he learned that the dead shall live and escape from his sway. And when He had afflicted Death by the despoiling of his possessions, he wailed and cried aloud in bitterness and said, "Go forth from my realm and enter it not. Who then is this that comes in alive into my realm?" And while Death was crying out in terror (for he saw that his darkness was beginning to be done away, and some of the righteous who were sleeping arose to ascend with Him), then He made known to him that when He shall come in the fullness of time, He will bring forth all the prisoners from his power, and they shall go forth to see the light. Then when Jesus had fulfilled His ministry among the dead, Death sent Him forth from his realm, and suffered Him not to remain there. And to devour Him like all the dead, he counted it not pleasure. He had no power over the Holy One, nor was He given over to corruption.
And when he had eagerly sent Him forth and He had come forth from his realm, He left with him, as a poison, the promise of life; that little by little his power should be done away. Even as when a man has taken a poison in the food which is given for (the support of) life, when he perceives in himself that he has received poison in the food, then he casts up again from his belly the food in which poison was mingled; but the drug leaves its power in his limbs, so that little by little the structure of his body is dissolved and corrupted. So Jesus dead was the bringer to nought of Death; for through Him life is made to reign, and through Him Death is abolished, to whom it is said:— O Death, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Aphrahat the Persian Sage
Nota Bene: This passage is from Aphrahat's Demonstrations XXII.2-5 ("Of Death and the Latter Times") as translated by John Gwynn and found in volume 13 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890), as revised and edited by Kevin Knight at New Advent (copyright 2009).