If on Good Friday we remember Jesus' suffering, crucifixion, and death and on Easter celebrate his resurrection and, consequently, the new life he offers us, then where is He between Friday and Sunday and what am I to do with it?
"He descended into Hell." Outside my window the azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom. I planned to plant flowers today, to take a walk, to have lunch with my family, read, maybe nap -- just to savor a bit of the Spring and maybe welcome a rain shower.
"He descended into Hell." After the Good Friday service at church last night, the place was buzzing with talk, with fellowship, with laughter. It was a strange juxtaposition -- remembering suffering and death like never has been experienced and yet going on our way with smiles and laughter and talk about normal things.
"He descended into Hell." No other phrase in the Apostles Creed is nearly so controversial as the four words "He descended into Hell." Some say it simply means that he truly died, translating Hell as merely meaning "Sheol," the Hebrew term for where the dead go. Others say that Christ actually went and preached to those who had died, like the Patriarchs, proclaiming the full grace they did not know. In fact, it was spoken of as a place under the earth called "Limbo." John Calvin probably gets at its mystery best when he recognizes that in some mysterious way Christ is enduring the spiritual agony of death in sin, enduring the full wrath of God for a time:
"If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. A little while ago we referred to the prophet’s statement that 'the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him,' 'he was wounded for our transgressions' by the Father, 'he was bruised for our infirmities' [Isaiah 53:5 p.]. By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge — submitting himself even as the accused — to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All — with this one exception: 'He could not be held by the pangs of death' [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who — on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it — say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."
Viewed in this way, this day becomes not just a parenthesis between Good Friday and Easter but an extension of our Good Friday remembrance, a time when we await His resurrection but remember what He endured spiritually for our sake, probably best summed up in that phrase uttered by Jesus "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Today, he is still forsaken for our sakes, knowing the torment of loneliness, of looking to His Father and only seeing His back, knowing the full awfulness of His silence, that we may never know it.
Now that makes today a different kind of Saturday -- a Holy Saturday.