April 3, 2010

He Descended into Hell

Today is the middle point of the Triduum, the three days that include Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. Holy Saturday may be the most significant of the days as we think about the suffering and violence of our world. The early church posed a question: "where was Jesus between his death and resurrection?" First Peter 3:18-19 offered this insight:

"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison..."

Again, the epistle affirms this descent:

"For that is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like humanity, they might live in the spirit like God" (4:6).

This pastoral reflection became a part of the Apostles Creed, and the confession "he descended into hell" states the reality that there is no realm unconquered by Christ. Even the realm of the dead cannot hold prisoners when resurrection power is loosed. Not only does Jesus experience the extremities of human suffering, he also confronts the stranglehold that death has on all of humanity as sin sharpens its horror. There is nothing we can face in life or death that is not familiar to him. And we do not travel the path of suffering unaccompanied, nor is death the final act.

Because faith comes by hearing fides ex auditu, the Gospel is preached even to those thought beyond the scope of Christ's redemption--the dead. The iconography of the church portrays a scene of liberation as forbears overcome corruptible death through Jesus. St. Ephrem the Syrian proclaims: "By death the Living One emptied Sheol. He tore it open and let entire throngs flee from it."

The only appropriate response is voicing the Alleulia that has fallen silent during Lent. Although we will experience death in the flesh we, like Jesus, will be made alive by the Spirit.

Molly T. Marshall

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