Readings 1 Peter 3:15b-22 and John 5: 25-29
In the Apostles’ Creed, Christians proclaim: “[Jesus] descended into hell: on the third day he rose again from the dead”
There are several passages in the New Testament, which describe Jesus’ descent into the realm of the dead. We heard one in the gospel of John today, where those “in their graves will hear Jesus’ voice.” In Ephesians Jesus is said to have made captivity a captive, after he “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” In Philemon, Paul notes that Christ’s name is confessed “under the earth” among the dead, and then in 1 Peter 3, “[Jesus] went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.”
What do we learn, what does it mean to us, to proclaim such a thing in this season of Easter?
I was thinking about three recent works of art that take place (in part) in the realm of the dead. Hadestown, is a modern, musical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The Morning Star, is a novel by the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard (which some might remember from this week’s e-news!). And Coco is a Pixar film, set in Mexico and the on the Day of the Dead. Their respective realms of the dead are marked by increasing confusion and descent into non-being.
In Coco, a young boy, accidentally cursed, must journey to find a way out of the land of the dead, in doing so he strikes a deal with a skeleton named Hector, who will help the boy escape should he restore a photo of Hector to his family’s home. The great threat that looms over the land of the dead, is to be forgotten in the land of the living, should no one alive remember you, you fade from the land of the dead, fade from being, and become one of the forgotten.
In Hadestown, Eurydice discovers that those who spend too long in the underworld, can no longer hear, or raise their heads to see another person standing before them, they cease to be able to recall their own name, or the details of their lives. Forgotten in the world above and in their minds below, they become indistinct cogs in the unceasing industry of the realm of the dead. This same slippage into non-being, into the haze of the forgotten begins to take hold of Eurydice too, that is until Orpheus arrives to claim her and lead her out to life (let’s just, for the moment, ignore how that actually ends).
The Morning Star’s land of the dead also abounds the loss of memory and self amidst the haze of timelessness and purposelessness. Through this section of the narrative we follow one man, desperately trying to cling to an identity and calling, even as he forgets his name and all details of his life, for he knows one thing: his son is somewhere in this realm of the dead, and could he only find him, he might be able to draw him out… of course, as just another mortal, he cannot pierce the fog of non-being, nor pluck life from death.
These three mythic and artistic realms of the dead, share much with the varying views of the land of the dead in the ancient world. The loss of self, the impossibility of return, the deterioration and eventual dissolution of the self into nothingness. It is a realm marked less by torment, and more by forgetfulness, lethargy, and hopelessness. It is a place of no individuality or change, just the slow fade from being to non-being, something to nothingness, as one is forgotten, erased, and unmoored.
And yet, “[Jesus] descended into hell: on the third day he rose again from the dead.” Jesus descended into the lower parts of the world and made a proclamation to the spirits imprisoned, so that those in their graves would hear his voice. The descent of Christ is an assault on the seemingly unescapable realm of the dead, a claiming of those held there since even the days of Noah. Christ descends so that humanity might ascend with him – the resurrection of Christ is not Christ’s alone, it belongs to all of humanity even those long asleep.
This descent of Christ breaks apart the suffocating cling of death! It loosens chains, breaks doors, and reveals that despite all appearances: we are – in death - still known and named, still loved and claimed. Christ proves that no one has been forgotten, no one has been lost, no one has dissolved into non-being. As the psalmist says, If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. Christ knows the names of those death claimed sovereignty over and proclaims that they belong to him. He breaks death’s grip and pulls humanity up by the roots, because there is no place in which he does not hold authority, no place in which darkness overcomes the light of the world, no place in which humanity can be severed from the love of God.
There’s a profound practice in Eastern Orthodox iconography of the resurrection. Christ appears, bursting from the tomb, standing over the broken doors of hell leading Adam and Eve from their graves. In his descent, Christ goes right back to the beginning of death, to the first sin, to the cataclysmic beginnings of humanity’s loss and longing, and he takes these figures by the hands and with all mercy and power, draws all the dead into life. Christ shares with all the dead the power of his resurrection. His death and descent hold the promise that we are not destined to the shadows and confusion of the underworld, we are not destined to be forgotten, we are destined to be his! Humanity is not created to be uncreated by decay and dissolution, we have been created to be restored and glorified, to be swept up in Christ’s own resurrection, so that we might share in his very life.
So we return to our opening question, what does it mean to proclaim Jesus’ descent into hell, into the land of the dead, in this Easter season?
Well, for starters it is a great reminder that the gospel message is bigger, stranger, more mysterious, expansive, and cosmic that we are often want to present it. The story of Easter is not just for you and me, but all of humanity, all of creation, it is an event proclaimed and felt in every possible realm, on every possible side of life and death. In the resurrection a seismic shift is revealed… death, forever appearing the strongest power over all, the ultimate and unreversible destination of all, has been triumphed over – Jesus made captivity a captive!
Such a victory and transformation doesn’t preclude the reality of grief, of the injustice of death come to soon, of the longing for more life. And yet, Christ’s death, descent, and resurrection nonetheless transforms death. Death becomes yet another place where Christ reigns, yet another place where deliverance is proclaimed. It is for this reason that Paul proclaims that death has lost its sting! Death is no longer a land of no return, of slow demise, of the forgotten and forsaken. It is from the peaceful rest of death (robbed of its horror and confusion) that we are found by Christ, and shall one day be restored and raised with him!
This is good news for us, for we shall all die. It is consoling news in the wake of the death of those we love and lose. And yet, this good news also shapes our discipleship, shapes how we live today, in the realm of the living… for the traits that marked the realm of the dead – the confusion, the chains, the dissolution into non-being, being forgotten and unmoored – all these fates can befall the living. Such a living death can befall the one who lives isolated and alone, no longer visited or received. It can befall the one excluded from society because of mental illness, poverty, or unemployment. It can befall the one cut off from family, friends, and purpose by an abusive partner. It can befall the child forced to live in lies so as to live in their family home. It can befall whole communities weighed down by generations of injustice and indignity. It can befall the one whose very mind has become a haze of confusion and forgetfulness. And yet, we confess that Jesus descends into all these places. Jesus is found in these homes, communities, and hearts proclaiming deliverance and salvation. Jesus descends even to these living graves and takes people by the hand to lead them into life. It is even in these places of living death, marked by hopelessness and regularly consigned to baskets marked “too hard”, that Jesus breaks chains, opens doors, and transforms them into gardens of new life.
And so let we who grieve take heart, we who feel trapped by the circumstances of a broken world be comforted, and we who confess to follow Christ, follow him in all these descents. Let us be found among those living in the realms of the dead, let us fight the forces of death with the way of love and life, proclaiming that in Christ’s descent we shall all ascend.
Image: Gustave Dore, The Burial of Jesus (1844)
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