"The angel of the Lord, descending from
heaven, came and rolled away the stone and sat on it." What strikes one about
the four versions of the Resurrection found in the gospels, is that they are
quite different from one another, and yet they have much in common. However,
not one of the evangelists describes the moment in which Christ rose from the
dead, what really happened or how it was done. In Matthew we see the angel
descend from heaven and roll back the stone. It's a highly dramatic scene, what
with the earthquake, the guards frightened and lying there "like dead men,"
then the very sight of the angel, "his face like lightening, his robe white as
snow." He tells Mary of Magdala and the other Mary that "Jesus, who was crucified,
is not here: he has risen, as he said he would," then he invites them to "come
and see the place where he lay." He tells them not to be afraid, but to go
quickly and tell the disciples that, "he has risen from the dead and now he is
going before you to Galilee." On their way, "coming to meet them," there
is Jesus. They fall down before him, clasping his feet. "Fear not," he says,
"go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; there they will see
me." Note that the Risen Christ no longer calls them disciples but brothers.
And there we
have it, but what happened to Jesus once he was left alone in the tomb on Good
Friday evening and the stone rolled up against the entrance? We often say that
Jesus rested in the tomb or that he slept in death, but that wasn't the case.
In the Apostles' Creed, based on the Old Roman Creed, we proclaim that, "I
believe... in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who... suffered under Pontius
Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the
third day he rose from the dead." What do we mean when we say we believe that,
"he descended into hell"? In his famous Easter Sermon, which is read as the
climax of the Easter Vigil Liturgy in the Byzantine Churches, St John
Chrysostom says, "Let no one lament their poverty; for the universal kingdom
has been revealed. Let no one weep for their sins; for the light of forgiveness
has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death; for the death of the Saviour
has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled
hell by descending into hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it tasted
his flesh, as Isaiah foretold: "Hell was filled with bitterness when it met you
face to face," filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled
with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was
overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was destroyed; filled with
bitterness, for it was put in chains. It received a body, and encountered God.
It received earth, and confronted heaven. It received what it saw, and was
overpowered by what it did not see. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where
is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are cast down. Christ is risen, and
the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is
risen, and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and the grave is emptied of
the dead. For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits
of those who sleep. To him be glory and dominion to the ages of ages. Amen."
On behalf of Fr
Prior and the Monastic Community, I wish you all a very Happy Easter.