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. 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 mortals.
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 strong room, and scattered all its treasure.
At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in doing so released life itself and set free a multitude.
He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.
We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. . . .
We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal and made it the source of life for every other mortal.
You are incontestably alive! Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of people raised from the dead.
Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of all.
—Ephrem the Syrian, sections 3–4 and 9 of the Eastertide sermon “On Our Lord,” trans. the International Commission on English in the Liturgy in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 2 (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1976), 735–36
Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306–373) was a prominent Christian theologian, hymnist, and teacher who is venerated as a saint and a doctor of the church. Born in Nisibis (in modern-day Turkey), he served as a deacon and later lived in Edessa, a center of Greek and Syriac theological and philosophical thought in Upper Mesopotamia. He spoke and wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, and is the most significant of all the Syriac Christian fathers.
This sermon excerpt appears in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for Friday of the Third Week of Easter. In translating the passage, the committee referenced the parallel text in Thomas Joseph Lamy’s Latin translation, “Sermo de Domino nostro,” columns 152–58, 166–68, in Sancti Ephraemi Syri Hymni et Sermones, vol. 1 (1882). Read Ephrem’s full sermon, in an English translation by A. Edward Johnston, at New Advent.
The three-paneled painting at the top of this post is by my friend Jyoti Sahi, one of the most theologically exploratory artists working today. I saw this triptych at an earlier stage of development when I visited his home in Silvepura Village, India, in 2019 and am so pleased by how it turned out. “It represents Christ ascending the cross (left), harrowing the underworld as the drummer (center), and rising like the sprout from the seed that is Mary, from whose womb he sprang forth (right),” Jyoti told me.
The central panel is based on iconography of the Anastasis, in which Jesus descends into Hades following his crucifixion to liberate those who have died. In such icons, Adam and Eve, who represent all of humanity, are “drawn up from the earth,” as Jyoti puts it. Jyoti portrays this rescue as a dance, with Jesus beating out the rhythms of redemption, as well as a time of planting and harvest (he wields a plow and a scythe). Jesus’s death tilled the soil, making conditions right for the dead to be raised to new life.
Jyoti has long been interested in the symbolism of the ladder and the seed, and both symbols are employed here. The ladder is an instrument of both descent and ascent, and the seed, as Christ himself taught, must “die”—be buried in the ground—before it yields life. In the right panel of the Triptych of Salvation, Jesus, having gone down into the earth, bursts forth from his casing, emerging as the tree of life, whose roots are watered by the river of life, which flows across all three panels. This tree is the cross transformed.
His arms raised again as they were on the cross but no longer pinned down, Jesus leads the dance of resurrection, and Adam and Eve and the others who have been delivered join in. They are the fruitful crop of Christ the Gardener.
For two similar paintings by Jyoti, see my blog posts “Jesus as Dancer” and “Jesus as Ladder.”