We often reflect on the crucifixion and the ressurection but today invites to reflect on the time in between, between the time when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus placed him in the tomb (Jn 19:38-39) and the discovery of th empty tomb while it was still dark on Sunday morning (Jn 20:1).
In our creed we say "He descended into hell", but wha exactly do we mean by that? The Jews of Jesus's time did not believe in hell as we conceive it, the place the bad people end up. All the dead were separated from God because before Jesus it was not possible for a human being to enter into heaven. Heaven was the place of God and Angels.
Sheol was the place of the dead. You can rightly think of it as hell because the people there are cut off from the vision of God. What the just had was the consolation of being "in the bosom of Abraham" and the hope of ressurection (if you were a Pharisee). The "blossom of Abraham" was not heaven; it was not eternity in God's presence.
By his three days in the tomb Jesus transforms the meaning of death. Death no longer means the end of life. As we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews,
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
Death, the end of life, separation from God, came into the world through sin, the free choice to give into temptation. Humans feared death, and because of that fear they lived in lifelong bondage. If we want to see the bondage look around at the billions spent of fending off aging.
Jesus goes down to Sheol, to that part of Sheol that was the "bosom of Abraham." He sets the just free and opens the door to a new possibility, enteral life in heaven, eternity in presence of God. This possibility of eternal life was suppose to set us free from fear of death. But has it?
How many of us, the Christians who profess a belief in ressurection and eternal life, still live in bondage, still live as slaves of fear? As the Letter to the Hebrews makes clear, death and the fear it inspires are the tools of Satan. The only ones who should fear are children of darkess. We are to walk always as children of the light. We walk unafraid.
It was still dark when Mary Magdalene went out to the tomb (Jn 20:1), but she walked out of the place she was staying and walked in the darkness unafraid. John's gospel reports her walking alone. It is she who fearlessly goes out into the dark and is therefore the first witness to the ressurection. She is the first to bring the good news to Peter and John ( Jn 20:2). It is Mary Magdalene whose courage is rewarded by the vision and the message of the two angels and most importantly the encounter with the Risen Christ (Jn 20:12-14).
Tonight the church invites us all to walk out into the darkness, to walk in the darkness without fear. We don't fear the darkness because we carry The Light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.(Jn 1:5)
As the sun sets (7:34 pm in Richmond), as darkness comes upon us, we gather to begin our Easter Vigil. We face the darkness with fire and light. On that first Holy Saturday, it appeared to the world that Jesus was dead. We know that he was still at work, completing the work for which he came into the world, to set us free, to open the gates to eternal life. He descended into hell to set the just ones free. On this Holy Saturday,
May we walk aways as children of the light may we keep the flame of faith alive in our hearts.