“He descended into hell.” It’s a line in the Apostle’s Creed through which we slide unthinking. We mouth it as “descent into hell.” What does it mean? What happened then? I find an ancient homily, read in the Divine Office for Holy Saturday, a fascinating Easter reading.
“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
“He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’
“‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
“‘See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
“‘I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
“‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.’”
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It was a long wait for our forefathers before liberation could come. But it came. It will for us too. But it will not come from human saviors. That is one message of Easter.
The election campaign period is a festive period for false Messiahs. This is where we are today. Let them make their promises. It is a ritual we go through every three years.
A modern writer gives us some Easter thoughts to chew on: “The writers of the early church are generally of more use to me than modern theologians when I am trying to make theological concepts come alive. John Chrysostom, for example, packs his dogma into plain speech and concrete imagery. A human voice comes through. The homily he preached in Constantinople before being forced into an exile from which he would never return is fortified with biblical allusion and still heart-rending more than 1,600 years later: ‘Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though waves rise up against me, the seas, the wrath of rulers: These things are no more to me than a cobweb.’ He encourages the congregation not to lose hope because: ‘Where I am, there also are you; where you are, there too am I; we are one body.... We are separated by space, but we are united by love. Not even death can cut us apart. For even if my body dies, my soul will live on and will remember my people.
“A man named Paul, facing execution, once wrote from a jail cell: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil 4:4). A man named Jesus, on the night before he died, ate his last meal with friends, talked up a storm and no doubt startled the company by proclaiming, ‘I am saying these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete’ (Jn 15:11). Wondrous things afoot: an inexpressible but ever-present love, a joy so profound that even death cannot diminish it. Happy Easter!”
5 April 2010