Saturday, March 30, 2002

Jesus, where art thou this holy Saturday?

Jesus died when he knew that the work which the Father had given him to do was completed. After the Atonement was made he cried out, "It is finished" (John 19:30), and then he prayed, "Father into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). The death of Jesus was a voluntary death; his life was not taken from him since he yielded it up at the moment he chose. But what is certain is that he truly died. His heart stopped beating and he was physically dead.

We know where his body was from the time of his death until at least late on Friday night (for witnesses saw his body taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb); and we can also say with some certainty that his body remained in the tomb until sometime early on Sunday (because the great stone covering the entrance was seen to be there on the Saturday night but was rolled away by dawn on Sunday).

BUT , Where was Jesus - that is Jesus as a Person with his human spirit/soul but without his human body - during the period that his mortal body was dead on the Cross and laying in the tomb?

Was he simply inactive "asleep" as it were in the realm of the invisible spiritual world, waiting for resurrection?

The answer is that he was active not inactive!

First of all, since he is One Person who has both a divine and human nature we have to affirm that as the Word of the Father and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity (that is as the Person considered only with his divine nature) he remains and is in perfect union and communion with the Father and the Holy Ghost and continues as true God of true God.

In the second place, we have to affirm that this One Person in his human nature was full alive before God the Father and, though perfectly at rest in
the embrace of the divine love, was active in the work of the redemption of the world. We say this because of the scriptural evidence and the testimony of the early Fathers of the Church.

The Apostles' Creed declares that "descendit ad inferna" (he descended into hell). This is to be seen not as an extension of his sufferings but as a demonstration of his victory and triumph. This summary statement in the Creed is based upon various passages from the New Testament - see 1 Peter 3:18f & 1 Peter 4:6 & Ephesians 4:6 & Revelation 1:18.

It was commonplace of Christian teaching in the early centuries that Jesus Christ spent the interval between his expiry on the Cross and his resurrection in the underworld. This Descent is explicitly mentioned by Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian and others.

We believe, teach and confess that the benefits of the Atonement of Jesus Christ are for the whole cosmos and thus for (a) his contemporaries at the time of his sacrificial death; (b) those who will come after him, and (c) those who went before him. For the sake of the latter he had to visit them in their disembodied state and there proclaim unto them the Victory of his Cross and the completed, redeeming Work that he had accomplished for the salvation of mankind.

For the taking of human nature and flesh by the Son of God to be complete and his saving work truly cosmic in scope and nature, he had to descend to the absolute bottom, as it were, of human existence which includes the whole realm of departed spirits and then from there be exalted by the Holy Ghost to the highest place of all existence, the Father's right hand (see Philippians 2: 5-11) in heaven.

And in this total "descent" he had both to bear the totality of the guilt and power of sin committed by the human race - thus his great cry of dereliction as he bore the pain of hell, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" - and visit human beings both alive and dead.

1 Peter 3:19ff informs us that Jesus Christ "went and preached to the spirits in prison who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah." And 1 Peter 4:6 adds that "the gospel was preached unto the dead." These hints perhaps suggest that there was a proclamation of the Victory of the Cross at all levels of the human condition and existence in the realm of the departed spirits. Salvation from future judgment is made available in the realm of the dead by the one, and once only, visit of Jesus to those who in their lifetime had not encountered him or the Christian message.

In much Christian Art the descent into hell is presented as a triumphal journey where the devil and his demons are reduced to submission and Adam and Eve are released from the bottomless pit! The symbolism of this Art is clear!

Having descended to the bottom as it were of human existence and proclaimed his Victory, Jesus was then exalted by the Father to the heights of heaven and in that exaltation his human spirit/soul was restored to his body (which was wonderfully immortalized and supernaturalized) so that he was raised from the dead and appeared unto his disciples on what we call Easter Day in his body of glory. The tomb was then truly empty and the appearance of the resurrected Lord Jesus became the cause for ALLELUIA amongst the disciples and the origins of the Christian mission to the world.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon Holy Saturday & Easter Eve 2002

No comments: