This is an ancient Easter greeting with which Christians used to greet each other on the streets. This acclamation, spoken publicly, was a way that Christians would witness to their faith in a very public way. In a somewhat similar way, we, simply in the action of coming together each week to worship, also are making a public witness to our faith.
Christians in America today need to do this more. We need to more publicly witness to our belief in Jesus Christ. It is not enough to simply come together to worship weekly. It is not enough even to do the works of Christ through our service at soup kitchens, through political action, and through our support of the many public agencies that care for the poor and oppressed of our world. We need to also more publicly profess our faith through the words that we speak and especially as we strive to spread the truth of the gospels. In a world where political conversations seem to have run astray from the truth, we need to bring the voice of truth, the voice of faith to the political world.
Holy Week is the one time of year that I hear many conversations about faith. Not bogged down by the commercialism of Christmas, Easter is the time when people tend to think more about what this Christian faith is all about, especially as we ponder and celebrate the events of that first Holy Week nearly two thousand years ago. This year it seems that the conversation I had frequently was about the death of Christ. Specifically, what happened to him during those three days in the tomb, and what does it mean when we say in our creed, “He descended to Hell?”
From the time Christ’s body was laid in the tomb, until that first resurrection appearance on Easter Sunday morning the scriptures are silent. Therefore to answer this question we need to go beyond the words of the scriptures and look instead to the tradition of our Church. In looking to the tradition we need to also make it clear that Catholicism is not a bible based religion. Instead, the Bible is based on the Catholic faith. I say this because the bible as it is compiled today did not exist until nearly 300 years after Christ. The Catholic bishops are the ones who decided what books actually compose this great book known as the bible. And so the Catholic Church is based on sacred tradition and sacred scripture.
And so to address the question posed about the “descending to Hell” I give you an ancient homily by a bishop from the early centuries of the Church.
“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 tremble 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 whoa re 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.”
Christ is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!