Illustration and Design: Margie & Michael Elgamal
Story: Dalia & Reda Fayek (Creative Orthodox, 2017).
The Harrowing of Hades is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Christian tradition of that same name. I became aware of the graphic novel while following Michael Elgamal's @CreativeOrthodox postings on Instagram. He is particularly good at educating believers about the gospel and the great saints of the church through icon-inspired, cartoon-styled illustrations and comments. He sometimes includes fascinating video footage of the artistic process.
The book itself begins with a foreword that starts out, "What I'm about to tell you may or may not have happened, but it is the truth."
Modern Western believers have a history of difficulty understanding how profound truth (theological or otherwise) can be conveyed through stories that may not claim to be factual history. They are often bothered by suggestions that biblical books like Job or Jonah might have been dramatic works of fiction. Or that the Genesis narrative is cast in the genre of mythology, as if that somehow made it less TRUTH. Orthodox Christianity, however, stewards a long-standing tradition of creating stories that communicate our most cherished theological treasures. This practice would be analogous to Christ's composition of parables, which we understand, but folks can get rattled when the stories include important historical figures as characters.
For example, ask a mature Orthodox teacher about the presentation of the Theotokos to the temple and you should hear a beautiful story of the Virgin Mary's childhood, her life in the temple, her experiences in the holy of holies, at so on. Ask them what the story means--the truth it tells--and you will be greatly enriched, especially in your Christology. But ask them whether they think it "actually happened" and you're likely to get a polite look of incredulity. If it's fiction, does that make it less true? Dostoevsky or Lewis fans know better.
So it is with the Harrowing of Hades. The narrative of Christ's descent into and conquest of hades is central to our understanding of who Christ is, what his death and resurrection mean, and how this accomplished for our salvation. The truth of that theology is embedded in our Scriptures, our theology and our liturgy. "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life."
Did Christ actually conquer death and rescue the dead? Oh yes! Do we believe he died and was raised in fact? Of course. These events were, we believe, absolute truth and we would also regard them as historical facts, witnessed in time.
But in his death, did Jesus Christ literally go to a 'place' under the earth, confront a 'being' called Hades, work his way through a prison system with 'real' iron bars to break open actual locked doors? Did he descend all the way to the tombs of Adam and Eve and literally pull them out by the wrists and, with them, lead a parade of people out of the grave? Most of us doubt that the story happened in that way, but how better to witness to the truth it tells? We must visualize the mysteries of Holy Saturday and tell the story as best we can from our limited perspective.
Elgamal states the matter better than I--what he says for the book applies to the whole tradition:
This little book isn’t meant to be a historically accurate recollection of Christ’s descent to Hades, it’s a symbolic reimagining.
The narrative we call "the Harrowing of Hades" gathers together the prophecies of the Old Testament, apocryphal writings (esp. the Gospel of Nicodemus), an abundance of liturgy and teachings of the early Church, including Fathers such as Cyril of Alexandria, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Ephrem the Syrian.
Michael Elgamal consulted all these sources (and more) and gathered the pieces together in an attractive and imagination-provoking 42-page book. He walks readers through the story into the deeper truths the story tells. Here we meet Simeon, John the Baptist and Lazarus, prophets such as Isaiah and Daniel, King David and others, all proclaiming their hope in the One who would defeat the last enemy and ransom their souls from the grave in resurrection power.
The author granted me permission to post a few screenshots for this review, so readers can see the quality and simple style of his work.
After the narrative proper, the book includes appendixes with some beautiful excerpts from Macarius the Great and St. John Chrysostom's 'Paschal Homily.' These give us a sense of the rich sources the author is drawing from--hopefully teasers that will lead us to further study. To help us with that, he includes a page of 9 of his key references. Then he closes with 3 black and white pages for readers who enjoy contemplative colouring.
All in all, an excellent introduction to the theological heritage of Holy Saturday that has been too long neglected as we rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.