|“Lamentation over the Dead Christ” by Bernardo Strozzi, 1615-17|
The Lord descends into hell
Something strange is happening-there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search far our first parent, as for a lost sheep, Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve, The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam the first man he had created struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: "My Lord be with you all." Christ answered him: "And with your spirit." He took him by the hand and raised him up saying: “Awake O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have became your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to came forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead; for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among thy dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life l once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
It seems a bit odd, a reflection on a Homily, but it is ancient. We can hear the age in it as easily as we hear the truth in it. The ancient anonymous homilist has a vision of Christ that sees him in his Godhead much more than his humanity. In this day, perhaps that is a vision of our Lord we need to share. Certainly, when he passed from this life to the next as his earthly body perished on the cross, he would have become fully aware of his nature as true God. I think, in modern times we would have thought of the Lord as more humble when he went down to free the captives and raise the firstborn of the dead as is foretold.
It is probably true that, in the early Church, Christ was viewed with a greater sense of the Old Testament "God of Justice" image. As the community has reflected on Jesus over the past two thousand years, we have come to understand his nature as more compassionate and less authoritarian.
It is a bit difficult to imagine this scene since, while I have read this passage in the past, I have never formally reflected upon it. Indeed the earth is holding its breath as we wait for the King of Glory to return. It is clear our homilist in this case has captured our Lord’s life and purpose in his address to those who have gone before. It is good to be reminded in the terms he (the homilist uses) of what our Savior came to do and what he gave up to do it. Pax
Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II pp: 496-498, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, NY © 1976