Holy Saturday: ‘He Descended Into Hell’

It was night. (John 13:30)

The realm of darkness appears to be victorious.  There is nothing left of the Messiah but the grave. And so we read that Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate to ask permission to take down the body from the Cross.  Nicodemus also, we are told, “who had at first come to [Jesus] by night,” brought spices for anointing, which were traditionally used in an admittedly vain effort to fend off corruption.  They bound the body tightly with spices wrapped in linen bands, “as is the burial custom of the Jews,” and placed it in Joseph’s own new tomb (19: 38-42).  This would have been late Friday afternoon.  There the corpse lay all during the night and all day in which all work, including the visiting of tombs, was forbidden.  This  is an echo of Jesus’ own words in the ninth chapter:  “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. Night comes when no one can work”  (9: 4-5).

Jesus has entered the realm of Death.  The mythology of the Greeks and Romans is by no means wrong here;  the dead must cross over the black waters of the river Styx into the kingdom of darkness from which no one can ever return. The Son of God, by his own permission, has been given over to the realm of night. This is where he has gone.  We say in the Creed, “He descended into hell.”  Death rules there.  Satan rules there.  The corpse lies there twenty-four hours, thirty hours, thirty-four hours. It is night.

Have you buried someone? If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the cold clasp of death.  You will know it in the literal sense, when someone who means the world to you is gone, when you yourself must stare it in the face.  You will come to know it in a hundred other ways, as the death of a friendship, the death of a career, the loss of youth, the loss of health, the death of happiness, the death of dreams.  It will seem to you like the tomb of hope.

–Fleming Rutledge

New Ways Ministry, April 20, 2019