Saturday, April 11, 2009

Christ's Descent into Death

You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths.

Psalm 87:7

This morning, for vigils of Holy Saturday here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, we heard the following reading. It is a wonderful meditation for this day of silence, waiting, and preparation for Holy Easter. Indeed, it is a wonderful reflection for each day of our lives united to the Resurrected Christ. — Br. Francis

THE PASSION is simply the record of Christ’s descent into the realm of death. This is a matter which is seldom explained, and for that reason we may fail to understand the cosmic magnitude of Christ’s passion.

Death is an evil force which, along with sin, dominates the human race. Sin and death are two names for what is really the same thing—the death of the soul and its consequence, the death of the body.

What exactly did Jesus do during his passion? He descended into death. He went down into death’s domain; he fell into its power. The depths of the earth do not mean the grave alone; they include the nether regions. Orthodox theology understands the resurrection not simply as Christ leaving the tomb, but as Christ rising up from the underworld.

The two ideas are not the same; the theological implications of the second are far more profound. Christ went down into the realm of death in that manhood of his which was under death’s dominion, and there was an actual moment when death was able to gloat: “I have won!”

But in answer to that boast we have Saint Paul’s splendid retort: “O death, where is your victory?” Death, whose name is Satan, believed that on the evening of Good Friday he had gained an everlasting victory, since Christ himself was now his prisoner.

Then all at once on Easter morning the gates of death burst apart and its strongholds were laid bare. O death, where is your victory now?

Christ was only able to conquer death by first becoming its prisoner. His purpose in submitting to death was to free the human race from its power. This fact gives a realism and incomparable grandeur to the death of Christ; this is the meaning of the word “redemption.”

Redemption does not mean some kind of ransom or settling of accounts between Christ and Satan. It means Christ’s conflict with the powers of evil, his victory over them all and his conquest of the kingdom of death.

This throws light on the rites of baptism as practiced in the early years of the Church. The descent into the baptismal font which Saint Paul likens to the entombment of Christ was a ritual representation of this descent into death. The newly baptized Christian was incorporated into Christ’s death before emerging victorious with him.

Christ’s victory is a victory for the whole of humanity. We all have to reproduce in ourselves the entire mystery of Christ—his passion, resurrection, and ascension—and baptism is a symbol of that conformity with the mystery of Christ which must continue during our whole lifetime.

Through our daily death to self, Christ’s victory over the power of evil continues to work in us until we are totally free.

— Cardinal Jean Daniélou, S.J.
(Le mystère de l’Avent, 162-164)

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