On the cross, Jesus was not only showing us the Father’s love, and not only making atonement for us—crucial as those both are! He was also defeating the dark powers and liberating us. And, as the early Church Fathers often remarked, how fitting it was that the one who deceived our race at the beginning should himself be deceived—by God!—into bringing about His own defeat. There’s so, so much that could be said to make this point, but in this Great Week, let’s listen in on just four excerpts from homilies of old. As we do so, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us celebrate Easter like never before. Ours is an age riddled with fear and anxiety and despair. Ours is the task of being heralds of hope to those around us, a hope that is anchored in the glorious and real resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and His defeat of the dark powers that had enslaved our race since Eden.
“In this way the wicked one, by pouring forth deadly words, frequently ensnares some of those who live a good life, but we must not believe his promises or fear his threats for he always deceives and none of his promises are true. For if everything he says were not a lie, how is it that when he made such infinitely extravagant promises the Lord hooked him like a serpent using the hook of the cross and he was bound with a halter like a beast of burden, and tied up in chains like a runaway slave, his lips pierced by an iron ring, and he was not given the chance to devour any of the faithful at all? Now he is as miserable as a sparrow caught by Christ in the net to be mocked at; now he groans for his companions who have been trodden beneath the Christians’ heel like scorpions and serpents. He who took pride in the fact that he had destroyed all the seas, he who promised that he would hold the world in his hand, look at him! You have conquered him and look how he is unable to prevent me arguing with him” (St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony).
“Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.
“Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
“Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strongroom and scattered all its treasure” (St. Ephrem, Sermon of our Lord).
“The devil was deluded by the death of the Lord…for through the visible mortality of His flesh, Christ—whom the devil was trying to kill—concealed his divinity, like a snare in which He might entangle him like an unwise bord by a clever trick…The devil, although he attacked the flesh of the humanity in Christ that was evident, was captured as if by the fishhook of His divinity that was lying hidden. For there is in Christ the fishhook of divinity; the food, however, is the flesh; the fishing line is the genealogy that is recited by the Gospel. Holding this fishing line truly is God the Father” (St. Isidore of Seville, Sentences).
And, the best for last…
“Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ.
“I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins.
“I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand. This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.
“This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen” (Melito of Sardis, “On the Pascha”).