I believe in Jesus Christ who descended to the dead

'I delivered to you of first importance what I also received', Paul states, 'that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, [and] that he was buried …'  (1 Corinthians 15:3-4a).  'Being put to death in the flesh' Peter says Christ 'was made alive in the spirit in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison' (1 Peter 3:18b). The Apostles’ Creed brings the teaching of Peter and Paul together as it affirms belief in Jesus Christ who descended to the dead.

On Holy Saturday – between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – God incarnate lay in a tomb. He lay there to extend the salvation he brought to earth to the faithful departed robbing the land of the dead of its prisoners.  It is the day of the so-called ‘harrowing of hell’.

In the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence there is a beautiful 15th Century picture by Masaccio of the Trinity. It shows Jesus on the Cross being handed over to us by the Father. This picture used to hang over a tomb with a skeleton engraved on top of it. On the tomb was the inscription: 'I was what you are and what I am you shall be'. At first the epitaph reads as if it were the words of the skeleton – ‘remember you will be dust one day like me’. When these words are read as if they were those of Christ they have enormous impact. I was what you are and what I am you shall be – “see I came as a man like you. I lay in the tomb as you will one day but I overcame the power of death. So shall it be for all who trust in me”.

Like the Apostles’ Creed the church calendar rolls through the mysteries of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost as a means of developing balanced devotion. At the centre of these seasons lies the Triduum - the great three days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. At the centre of this centre lies Holy Saturday. Historically this day is a day of transition. Liturgically it is a busy day of stripping and decorating churches, soon past as brief prelude to Easter. For a few hours churches lie bare and silent to help worshippers take in Good Friday and set the spiritual stage for the Easter Feast.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a striking service for the burial of the Lord at that time. The people process to the Epithaphion or table (tomb symbol) on which the image of Christ is laid. They then go under the table and out the other side representing their desire to be buried with Christ.  This ceremony is a vivid reminder that Christian worship not uonly recalls the events or mysteries of Christ but makes us very participants in the same mysteries. Christ was buried so that our sins can be buried and done away with to bring us freedom. The same thinking is associated with the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter in the western church when worshippers hear this scripture: 'Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life'. (Romans 6v3-4).

Jesus descended to the dead.  What do we make of such three-decker universe talk in the 21st century?  The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, mocked religion: 'There are no angels up here' he said.  In the 21st century we see beyond a three-decker universe to what has been called a multiverse with many dimensions but this does not contradict the Christian Creed.  Modern science far from contradicting the Creed provides us with new symbols to communicate its articles. A contemporary symbol of descending to the dead would be the saving of the file of our life into the computer memory of God.  Just as an electronic file with no weight or substance can be held for years on the hard drive of a computer so our souls are stored for eternity within God’s memory when we descend to the dead to await our destiny.                                                            
'I believe in Jesus Christ who descended to the dead'…in Jesus Christ who uses death to limit life.  Human life has a limit that no amount of medical care can overcome.  Many who approach death rejoice in this limit since it promises freedom from the “burden of the flesh”. The Creed says God who uses death to limit life also puts limits on death.  St Francis sang of this, of Brother Death waiting to hush our latest breath, going on in exultation: you lead home the child of God for Christ our Lord this way has trod.

Christianity is bigger than death because Jesus is.

For a 2min audio summary try https://soundcloud.com/john-twisleton/descent-to-the-dead


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