What Do We Mean When We Say He Descended to the Dead?

This arguably most oblique of affirmations in the Apostles’ Creed brings to my mind scenes from two cult classics, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and “The Princess Bride;” each will be instructive to explore the meaning of the phrase “he descended to the dead.”

First, in the film, “The Princess Bride,” the main love interest, Wesley, is declared by a magician to be “only mostly dead.” This soothsayer continues, “there’s a big difference between ‘mostly dead’ and ‘all dead.’” At least in this, the wizard speaks the truth. To proclaim that Jesus “descended to the dead,” we affirm that Jesus Christ was “all dead,” really and truly, “completely dead.” None of this catatonic state nonsense, or some kind of trance that he then fell out of a few days later when he busted his bandages and walked out of the tomb. Jesus the Christ was not only buried, but got down into the lowest point of humanity -- death itself.

The significance of coming into the state of being completely dead is that Jesus was then able to free those who were imprisoned in death. An early Church Father uses this analogy: it is as if a king descends to the dungeon to unlock the cells and break apart the fetters that hold the prisoners in captivity. He does not descend to the dungeon restrained by crimes that sent him there, but of his free will and for the purpose of using his position to bring those confined out into freedom and light. One might even understand this descent to be the beginning of resurrection, dragging those who would accept his help and healing along with him up to new life.

I’ve promised you not one theological revelation-through-film but two, and so here is the second. In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” there is a scene ostensibly captured during the great bubonic plague in England; a cart muddles through a crowded village street, gathering dead bodies like modern recycling trucks. A gong is hit, “Bring out yer dead!” shouts the government employee, and a man carries another over his shoulder up to the drop point. The one carried famously protests, “I’m not dead yet!” (https://youtu.be/Jdf5EXo6I68) while gong-hitter soon dispatches his mallet to resolve the situation.

Surely this exposes my perverse sense of morality, but the most offensive part of the scene strikes me as this passing of the buck -- the man brings his mostly-dead offering and punts the landing of the final blow to somebody else. This brings to the fore another significant point implicit in “he descended to the dead:” God did not pass the buck.

Jesus himself descended to the dead. The King took his own self down to the dungeons, the smelly, dank, sin-ridden pit of desolation and brought up those who would follow him. Rather than sending an emissary to muck out the stalls of Sheol and slam the door on the devil, God took the trip himself, and did so in the most extraordinary way.

It seems that the only way to descend “to the dead,” which, it is generally agreed, is not another word for “heaven,” or a desireable eternal resting place, is through death. Those souls who were already descended to this place of the dead had gotten there of their own volition -- for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) -- but Jesus descended to the dead despite his innocence. In going to “the dead” in impunity, he used his freedom to free those imprisoned by their own sin-bought deaths.

So, to those of us already dead in our sin (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1-6), God himself “descended to the dead” to bring us up to new life through his grace. And so, our new life comes not from protesting, “I’m not dead yet!” but through acknowledging that in our disobedience, we are truly, “completely dead” but for Jesus’ descent to the dead and harrowing of hell for the sake of our life and salvation.

 

Posted by The Rev. Emily Hylden with

Sitting at the Right Hand of the Father

main image

In Matthew 20:20-23, we are introduced to the mother of James and John, who begs of Jesus, “‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking… You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’” Jesus reiterates in verses 25-28, “’You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”

The mother of James and John asks that her sons sit at the right and left hand of God in order that they might be exalted, but when we say that Christ ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father we mean that Christ is not exalted in this world, but instead underwent the crucifixion so that he might be glorified in heaven. St. Thomas of Aquinas, in his article “Whether it is fitting that Christ should sit at the right hand of God the Father?” quotes St. Augustine’s words that “Christ dwells so at the right hand of the Father: for He is happy, and the Father’s right hand is the name for His bliss.” In a sense, Christ’s seat at the right hand of the Father is the eternal beauty that he finally receives after the suffering he experienced on this earth. When Jesus proclaims that the Father has prepared a place for us, the place for Jesus is specifically at His right hand. It would seem that, lifted high in his crucifixion, Christ was able to reach up and wipe the dust off of the seat at the right hand of God, the seat where he knew he would sit after his ascension.

Additionally, St. Thomas of Aquinas writes that, “Christ is said to sit at the right had of the Father inasmuch as He reigns together with the Father, and has judiciary power from Him; just as he who sits at the king’s right hand helps him in ruling and judging.” Consistent with the upheaval of the world’s power through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God mirrors the system of a king and those at the king’s right hand, but transformed into a kingdom with God’s justice in place. Christ’s presence within the kingdom, Christ sitting at the Father’s right hand, means that he will serve as judge. We know by his life, death, and resurrection that Christ’s presence in judgment means that our judgment will ultimately be met with divine grace.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, I believe we mean that through his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Christ now dwells with God, offering a judgment alongside the Father that looks like grace. Christ sitting with the Father might mean for us that, while we stand, kneel, or prostrate ourselves as we wait for the second coming, Christ sits—at peace, and in no rush to stop offering grace from the right hand of God.

Posted by The Rev. Erin Jean Warde with

12...9101112131415161718 ... 4041

Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.