He descended into hell.
On Easter Sunday, just as at Christmas, there are friends at Mass whom we have not seen for a while. Some of us will say it and many more will think it: “where have you been?” The Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, read in the Eastern Churches on Easter Sunday morning, shows that this is nothing new and corrects our way of thinking about it:
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
But it is a question which we may have for the Risen Lord: ‘where have you been?” It is a question which Peter must have asked Jesus because he says in his in first Epistle: “he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey”. So the baptismal creed of the Church, the Apostles’ Creed says: Crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.
Easter, I suppose, is one time, when you could expect not to hear a ‘hell-fire’ sermon. But you cannot talk about the Resurrection without talking about hell, hell conquered, hell defeated, hell gone to hell. St. John Chrysostom continues:
He descended into Hell and took Hell captive!
He embittered it when it tasted His flesh!
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ went down into death. He went where death is master. He put Himself into death's hands. What the Church celebrates at Easter is not simply that Jesus rose from the tomb but as the Exultet of the Easter Vigil insists: This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from hell. Christ went down into 'the domain of death, to that manhood which was under death's dominion, and there was a moment when death could cry "I am the victor." But Christ is risen and death is overthrown.
Death, whose name is Satan, thought on Good Friday to be forever victorious, for Christ Himself was its prisoner. And then, on Easter morning, the gate burst, the prisons of death were opened up: 0 death, where is thy victory?
Christ could not conquer death without first becoming its prisoner. He fell into its power to set mankind free. And this gives His death an incomparable realism, and an incomparable grandeur, and gives the word ‘Redemption’ its fullest meaning. It was not simply a buying back, squaring of an account between Christ and Satan, but Christ's struggle against the powers of evil, and His victory over them all and over the dominion of death.
This explains the rites of baptism as practiced in the Early Church. The descent into the baptismal pool, which St. Paul connects with the burial of Christ, symbolized this going down into death. The newly baptized were incorporated into Christ's death before emerging victorious with Him. St. John Chrysostom is entirely right: The victory of Christ's holds good for all men. Every man can now reproduce in himself the whole mystery of Christ-His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension-and baptism is a symbol of that conformity with Christ which is to be carried on throughout life. Christ's victory over the powers of evil is completed in us and the final liberation it brings.
That and that alone is the reason that the last as well as that the first must be welcomed, those who come at the eleventh hour as well as those who come at the first, at the sixth and the ninth, that is the reason for excess of Serotonin, Mozart, the endless alleluias and the Easter sequence: Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life's own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.
He descended into hell
The third day he rose again from the dead.