I believe in God, the Father almighty,Orthodox Easter icons do not portray the empty tomb, the typical Easter scene within Western Christianity. Rather, the Easter icons of the Orthodox church depict the event known as the harrowing of hell.
creator of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary.
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead...
The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus' death and his resurrection. Specifically, the early church believed that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. Jesus breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven.
This is an obscure teaching in the Western church, but the bible hints at these events:
1 Peter 3.18-20aThis belief that Christ descended into hell is also captured in Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...
1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
Acts 2.27, 31In the Easter icons of the Orthodox church you see two common motifs. First, if you look at the three icons presented here, you see Christ standing over the broken gates of hell. In the second icon you also see two angels binding Satan in the pit of hell. In the top icon you see Satan crushed under the gates of hell.
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.
Next, we see Christ pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths. Imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe.
Beyond iconography, the harrowing of hell is also the dominant symbol of Orthodox Easter liturgies. Again, in Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. Specifically, the priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, "Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the king of glory." Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit and filled with incense.
By focusing on the harrowing of hell the Orthodox shift the focus of Passion Week. For Protestants the focus of salvation is on the death of Jesus and penal substitutionary atonement. We are saved on Good Friday. For the Orthodox the emphasis is on the resurrection of Jesus and the defeat of death, the Christus Victor themes. We are saved on Easter Sunday. The keys of death and Hades have been taken away from Satan and given over to Jesus:
Revelation 1.12-13, 17-18
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest...When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades."