Saturday, March 26, 2016

Life has Descended into Death

Easter Sunday 2016

“Easter has arrived early this year!” The words were met with instantaneous grins from the inmates of the Correctional Facility in Bentong a week ago. I had gone in with some priests of the diocese to hear confessions and celebrate mass at the facility. I know, and you know, that as far as the universal Liturgical Calendar was concerned, Easter was still a week away. But for the Catholic and Christian prisoners, Easter was already here! Easter was bursting forth from the liturgy of that Eucharistic Celebration and it had somehow mysteriously brightened that very room and dispelled the gloom that had hung over this place of incarceration. Indeed Easter is always present in the hearts of all who believe that Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! Such faith is rooted in the belief that no prison, no fortress, no barrier, nothing, absolutely, nothing can keep the Lord out.

For many of the prisoners in this correctional facility, their life sentence seemed like eternity, while others on death row, were already feeling the noose tightening around their necks. The closest analogy would be hell, and yet this would be pale shadow of that horrifying prospect. Alienated and cut from the world and their love ones, the prison walls must be the closest thing to the nether regions on this side of the threshold of life and death. Yet, with the simple announcement that I was going to celebrate the Easter liturgy that morning provided them with a glimpse of another reality. The mass was the closest thing to heaven on this side of the threshold of life and death. The mass reassured them that with every Good Friday, comes the bright promise of Easter. Good Friday was the worst thing that ever happened in all history but Easter Sunday was the best thing.

It was not difficult to draw a comparison between the prison cell and the Easter event. Christians had been doing it for centuries. What happened between Christ's death on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday morning? The Scriptures tell us that the Lord Jesus holds the “keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:9). St Peter the Apostle tells us that Jesus “preached to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6) and “to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:18). In last night’s vigil liturgy, the Easter Proclamation announced “this is the night, that when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” Yes, no living person was there to witness this momentous event but both Sacred Scripture and Tradition already attests to what our Easter Christian brethren describe as the “Harrowing of Hell” and what we affirm in our Creed that Christ indeed “descended into hell.”

In a famous ancient homily which was preached on Holy Saturday - the day before Jesus' resurrection, the scene of Jesus descent to Hades (or Hell) is vividly described. Jesus unlocks the door to Hades to announce his victory over death, Satan, and all the powers of Hell. He then releases Adam and Eve and all the just who were waiting for their redemption by the Messiah. Jesus executed the greatest gaol break from most secure ultra-maximum security prison. He then speaks these powerful words to Adam, “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” Christ descended into hell not as another victim of the devil, but as Conqueror. He descended in order to ‘bind up the powerful’ and to ‘plunder his vessels’.

Beyond iconography, the harrowing of hell is also the dominant symbol of Orthodox Easter liturgies. Again, in Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. Specifically, the priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, "Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the king of glory." Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit and filled with incense.

As incredible and important as the descent into the underworld was, what can we, who are living today, learn from it?
The first lesson is certainly that of hope, and the world, so short of hope and rich in skepticism and cynicism, is most in need of this. In all the various trials and tribulations we may bear, even when we find ourselves in the depths of sin and despair, the darkest prison of addiction or depression, the truth of the descent into hell insists that we nonetheless hold to a firm hope in Christ. Aquinas put it best: “No matter how much one is afflicted, one ought always hope in the assistance of God and have trust in Him. There is nothing so serious as to be in the underworld. If, therefore, Christ delivered those who were in the underworld, what great confidence ought every friend of God have that he will be delivered from all his troubles!”

Hope ultimately leads to consolation. Few, if any, Christians journey through this life without ever experience a sense of abandonment by God. Spiritual writers speak of this as the experience of desolation, the experience of the soul where the sun (sol) is eclipsed from our vision, where all seems dark and silent. The silence is deafening, the darkness is blinding. But the descent event should assure us that even then, Christ is there with us. As then Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Emeritus Benedict, wrote in his Introduction to Christianity: “This article (that Christ descended into hell) thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.”

Ultimately, the descent into hell should renew our awe and wonder at what Christ achieved on the Cross. It also should deepen our awareness and appreciation of His love: even after the unimaginable suffering He endured on the Cross—which culminated in a cry of abandonment from God the Father—Christ did not immediately rush back to heaven, He did not shrink back from entering the place of ultimate spiritual desolation and isolation to personally rescue those who had died before His crucifixion. As much as we are often tempted to flee from the suffering and pain of this world, from the long hand of justice, from various responsibilities and financial burdens, and even from death; but experience tells us that we can run from trouble, but trouble will find us out. But Easter reminds of another who runs toward us, who runs after us, and who even runs into the very murky trouble that we have found ourselves in. He has come to free us from the prison of death and hell for He is “the life of the dead.” Yes, Easter has arrived, “death is swallowed up in victory” and has lost its sting! Yes, Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

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