Today's first reading combines the story of the death of Jacob and the story of the death of Joseph closing our reading of the Book of Genesis. The three great Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Israel) have all passed into Sheol. Where they must wait.
From our Christian understanding of the universe no human being could enter heaven until Jesus opened the way. With his Resurrection and Ascension, he opens the way not only to those who came after him but those who came before.
In the Apostles Creed we say "descended into hell." Here , however, hell does not mean the place of the damned. It is the translation for Sheol, the place of the dead. We translate it hell because it was separated from God, heaven being eternal life in the presence of God.
Why so long between the death and ressurection? It is our Christian belief that when Jesus died and rose he changed the basic structure of the universe. He descended to this place where all the souls of the dead had gone and opened the gates of heaven to all holy men and women of every time.
In an Orthodox Church you can see a wall of icons separating the sanctuary from the nave of the Church. While there is great variation in height over the centuries many have a top row, the patriarch row, that links our Christian faith to the forefathers from Adam to Moses, reminding us that they too are sharer in the promise.
Next week, a new beginning, Exodus.