These icons are highly instructive for us and for our salvation. They describe in pictorial form not only why our salvation was necessary, but the means by which it was accomplished.
We see here our Lord gently going with Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise. This is before he clothed them in animal skins to replace the glory with which they had been clothed in the Garden.
We could have begun with the icon of the Nativity of our Lord, but instead we have here the icon of the Holy Theophany, otherwise known as the baptism of Our Lord. This is important for two reasons. First, because it was the first direct revelation of the Triune God, where the Holy Spirit descends upon the God-man, and the Father speaks from heaven. And second, because when John baptised Our Lord, Our Lord baptised all of creation. the two tiny figures mounted on the bottom represent the Jordan river and the Sea, both fleeing from one greater than themselves. The angels look on in amazement; meanwhile, we see the axe “laid unto the root of the trees”, spoken of by Jesus in Matt 3:10 and Luk 3:9.
Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica writes:
He Himself did not have the need either of Baptism, or Transfiguration, or of the Mystical Supper, or of Crucifixion, or of death and Burial, or of Resurrection on the third day, or Ascension! Thus, naturally, the question logically imposes itself: Why then does this whole Divine Economy (Dispensation) take place, this divine intervention among people in the world and time? The answer is the same as we read in the Creed: “For us and for our salvation”…! Out of love we are created, and out of love, after the fall, we are saved. (Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica (2013-02-22). NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU… (Kindle Locations 3022-3026). Monastery of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleusa. Kindle Edition.)
The icon of the Crucifixion of Christ is interesting for a number of reasons. First, Christ still has his halo; he is still God, even while dead on the cross. The heretics sometimes say that only the humanity of Christ suffered death, but for death to be defeated, it had to be by the God-man who could not be held by death. We see here the angels collecting in a chalice the blood and water that pours from his pierced side, by which we are to led to an understanding of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist — the washing of regeneration, and the medicine of immortality. We also see a skull beneath the earth; this is Adam, the first man, upon whom Jesus own blood is flowing. By the death of Christ, we are all baptised into his death and raised to newness of life; death has no more dominion upon us.
Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica writes:
The consequences of the fall, in human nature, could not have been healed if it had not become the nature of the Son of God, too, and if in this manner it had not passed the entire human road of life— from birth, through suffering, up to death itself, and resurrection. Christ the Godman adopted even death itself in order to destroy it with His Resurrection. Nonetheless, Christ assumed only the incorruptible passions of human nature, consequences of Adam’s sin and fall: hunger, thirst, fatigue, effort, suffering, tears, fear prior to death and death itself, and all the others that by nature appertain to every human being. The Godman took on Him all except for sin, that is, susceptibility to sin.(Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica (2013-02-22). NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU… (Kindle Locations 3026-3031). Monastery of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleusa. Kindle Edition.)
We see this clearly in our last icon.
In this icon we see Christ breaking down the gates of hell, and restoring the Old Testament saints to paradise. This is represented by Christ drawing Adam and Eve from their coffins, all the while trampling on death and the devil. In this icon we see not Christ as the suffering servant, but Christ the victor over sin, death, and the devil, for us and for our salvation.
The Harrowing of Hell is problematic for some Protestant Christians — not because it cannot be supported by the Sacred Scriptures, but because it doesn’t fit with their theology of salvation. That Christ descended to Hell is supported, but the meaning of leading captivity captive, and of preaching to the spirits in prison is unclear. Some believe that Christ descended to Hell to preach to the fallen angels, telling them they had been beaten. Some believe that Christ actually suffered in Hell until He was resurrected on the third day. They have difficulty seeing this for the victory it is.
In this icon we see the risen and glorified Christ returning in glory with his saints and angels, and we see the praises of the saints on earth. What we don’t see is the so-called ‘secret rapture’ of the church, a doctrine which not only of recent origin, but of highly doubtful provenance. All those who died in the faith, as well as those who are prepared for and awaiting His coming, are all together rejoicing with the cherubim and seraphim. The already and the not yet of the kingdom are now one and the same. He who sits upon the throne will rule, and His kingdom shall have no end.
Maranatha. Even so come, Lord Jesus.