Thoughts on the Structure of an Easter Hymn

There is a wonderful troparion in the Orthodox Easter Hours service, which is undoubtedly known and loved by every believer. It is the troparion that describes the divine omnipresence of Jesus Christ:

In body were You inside the sepulcher,
and with Your soul in hell as God, in Paradise
were You as well with the Robber, and on the
throne with Father and Spirit, O Christ, filling
all things, being uncircumscribed.

This beautiful troparion is sung not only during the Easter Hours and the Compline, but also immediately after the Eucharistic vessels with bread and wine are placed on the Holy Table at the Great Entrance. Moreover, even before the beginning of the Liturgy but after the Proskomedia, the deacon censes the Holy Table and reads this troparion to himself. As I reflected on the underlying meaning of this hymn, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the syntax, or punctuation marks, may have been slightly off in this text, which in turn may have somewhat distorted its original meaning. The principal idea and structure of this troparion is as follows: Christ, being a true Man and a true God, is described as omnipresent, for the sake of which the troparion lists the places where Christ is present by some aspect of His being. Thus, Jesus is present in the tomb in flesh, and He abides with the soul as God in hell. Jesus is in Paradise together with the Good Thief and remains with the Father and the Holy Spirit on the Throne of the Godhead, being the Second Hypostasis of the Most Holy Trinity. The divine omnipresence of Christ is beautifully described in the most profound hymns of the Holy Week.

However, why does the troparion say that Jesus remains “in hell with the soul as God”? Why is “as God” added? There is nothing specifically divine about being in the grave bodily and in hell spiritually. Whenever a man dies, he leaves his body in the coffin, while his soul goes to the Sheol. Christ, being a true Man, died on the Cross, was also buried and His body remained in the tomb, while His pure soul went down to hell, where He preached unto the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19). Staying in the tomb and in hell refers rather to the human nature of Christ, His body and soul. As God, Jesus was in paradise with the thief: “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), while being the Second Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, He abides inseparably with the Father and the Holy Spirit. So, everything takes its place if we simply remove the comma after the word “God” and finish the sentence with a full stop, or place the comma after the word “soul”. Then the troparion will sound more logical and look like this:

In body were You inside the sepulcher,
and with Your soul in hell, as God in Paradise
were You as well with the Robber, and on the
throne with Father and Spirit, O Christ, filling
all things, being uncircumscribed.
(translated by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

This can be conceptualized as follows. We have the following places: tomb (A), hell (B), heaven (C), and the Throne of the Trinity (D). The aspects and facets of the existence of Christ are His body (1), soul (2), divinity (3), and hypostasis (4). Assuming that our proposal is correct, the troparion becomes very harmonious and coherent:

A (tomb) – 1 (the Body of Christ)
B (hell) – 2 (the soul of Christ)
C (paradise) – 3 (divinity)
D (Throne of the Trinity) – 4 (hypostasis of the Son)

There is a clear misalignment in the unedited form and the harmony of the troparion is broken:

A (coffin) – 1 (body of Christ)
In (hell) – 2 (the soul of Christ) + 3 (as God)
C (paradise)
D (Throne of the Trinity) – 4 (hypostasis of the Son)

Where did this mistake come from, if it’s still there and our theory is correct? My initial assumption was that, as it happened more than once, the error occurred when translating from Greek into Slavonic, as well as into English. However, the Greek also has the phrase “as God” grammatically referring to “in hell with the soul”:

Ἐν τάφῳ, σωµατικῶς, ἐν ᾅδῃ δὲ µετὰ
ψυχῆς ὡς Θεός, ἐν Παραδείσῳ δὲ µετὰ
Λῃστοῦ, καὶ ἐν θρόνῳ ὑπῆρχες Χριστέ, µετὰ
Πατρὸς καὶ Πνεύµατος, πάντα πληρῶν ὁ
ἀπερίγραπτος.

A possible reason (if our theory is correct) for this syntax may be an attempt by ancient hymnographers or translators to adapt this troparion to the beat, the rhythm that was usually used to sing this troparion. Rhythmical sound and smooth lyrics often play an important role in the divine service, so this reason can be considered quite plausible. However, knowledge and understanding of the original meaning of the text is necessary and justified. It is worth adding that some translators of church hymns from Greek into English also translate this troparion attributing the phrase “as God” to “in paradise with the robber” (e. g., Fr. Seraphim Dedes. AGES Initiatives), which means that our interpretation is shared by other researchers and therefore is valid.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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