[Genesis 8.20-9.17]; Acts 17.22-31; 1 Peter 3.13-end; John
God our redeemer, you have delivered us from the power of
darkness and brought us into the kingdom of your Son: grant that,
as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his continual
presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.
THE readings fill out the collect's bold claim that God has
delivered us from the powers of darkness. Paul entered the
philosophical framework of his pagan hearers to proclaim their
unknown God as known. His message of God - who made the world,
giving life to mortals, enabling them to search for and find God -
was a quite extraordinary thought for Greeks, who were used to gods
too caught up in their own affairs to be interested in humans.
Noah's watery deliverance is described in the epistle as
prefiguring baptism. The epistle's reference to God's patient
waiting while Noah built the ark suggests God's passion to save
people from the consequences of sin. Genesis describes the bow in
the clouds as a reminder to God rather than to Noah of the covenant
at times when human sin would again tempt God towards destruction
(for example, Exodus 32.7-10).
Then the epistle alludes to the concept - better understood by
the Orthodox Church than the Western Church, despite its inclusion
in our creeds and hymns - that, on his death, Jesus Christ entered
the underworld. This was considered the place of the dead rather
than punishment, and Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom to the spirits in
prison, before rising with all powers subjected to him.
St John of Damascus wrote: "When he had freed those who were
bound from the beginning of time, Christ returned from among the
dead, having opened for us the way of resurrection." Icons of the
harrowing of hell show Jesus's bursting its gates, hauling Adam and
Eve out, followed by others, while we sing:
He whose path no records tell,
Who descended into hell;
Who the strong man armed hath bound,
Now in highest heaven is crowned.
(German, 15th century, translated by
A. C. Cawley, in an introduction (Everyman, 1993) to the Chester
Mystery play in which - using verses from Psalm 24 - Christ bursts
the gates of hell and frees those held captive, commented:
The cooks and innkeepers of Chester who acted this pageant no
doubt enjoyed themselves, rushing in and out of the monstrous jaws
of hell-mouth and clashing their pots and kettles. But it should be
remembered that medieval men and women took the devil and his works
more seriously than we do today, and that the merriment of the
spectators probably had an uncomfortable edge to it.
We are not so different from our forebears, although we may
express things slightly differently. Our society is full of fear
and a sense of being powerless, whether we are facing international
terrorism or the difficulty of getting good care for our elderly
relatives. In Praying with Icons (Orbis, 1997), Jim Forest
The icon of Christ's descent into
hell can be linked with an ongoing prayer not to live a
fear-centred life. We live in what is often a terrifying world.
Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in - fear of
violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness,
fear for the well-being of people we love, fear of war, and finally
fear of death. . . We can easily get ourselves into a paralysing
state of fear that is truly hellish. The icon reminds us that
Christ can enter not just some other hell but the hell we happen to
be in, grab us by the hands, and lift us out of our tombs.
What about us today? It is fine to talk about all this in
theological terms, but where is the good news in this for us? On
Easter Day, we proclaimed triumphantly: "Christ is risen!" That
victory does not simply set us an example, but has a creative
effect on us and on all creation. Our hearts and wills are
transformed. We are released from bondage, made whole, and brought
into the Kingdom of God's Son.
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us," proclaimed John at
the beginning of his Gospel, and last Sunday we heard that the
Father dwells in Jesus. On the cusp of Ascensiontide, with Jesus's
promise of another Advocate to dwell with us for ever ringing in
our ears - like Paul's pagan audience, Jesus's disciples, and 1
Peter's persecuted readers - Christ's continual presence dwelling
with us raises us to eternal joy. I am left pondering what
difference this glorious truth makes in my life day by day.