Since the introduction of the New Roman Missal in 2010, the presider can invite the congregation to say either the 4th Century Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, the essence of which goes back to the teaching of the Apostles. Besides being more ancient, the Apostles’ Creed is simpler in phrasing and choice of words. We seem to like it, except for one phrase which makes us frown.
Halfway through the Apostles’ Creed we declare about Jesus that he descended into hell. That phrase doesn’t appear in the Nicene Creed at all. What does it mean that he descended into hell?
Our question is modern. Hell, in our day, means only one thing – the place of eternal punishment after death. But for the ancients, the word “hell” had many synonyms. It was the grave. The Hebrews called it Sheol. The Greeks, Hades. These were different from Gehenna - a fiery, always burning garbage pit outside of Jerusalem – more akin to our modern hell.
But in early Christian theology, the grave or Sheol or Hades or Gehenna, was simply the gathering place of all who awaited with some peace the opening of heaven by Christ. The great figures of the Hebrew Bible were there, holy people of non-Jewish origin, good people like you and me. Another way of saying he descended into hell is to say he descended to the dead.
Jesus came for everyone, scoops up into his divinely human embrace all who went before and all who came after him. Death would never be the end of life. Life would be the true outcome of death.
To say that Jesus descended into hell is to tell us something about that seemingly barren, unknown time from the late afternoon of Good Friday through Holy Saturday. It was not a barren time at all. Sister of Saint Joseph Eileen Lomasney offers us a poetic picture of this in-between time:
The ancient grayness shifted And Moses standing
Suddenly and thinned Hushed them all to ask
Like mist upon the moors If any had a welcome song prepared.
Before a wind. If not, would David take the task?
An old, old prophet lifted And if they cared
A shining face and said: Could not the three young children sing
“He will be coming soon. The Benedicite, the canticle of praise
The Son of God is dead. They made when God kept them from perishing
He died this afternoon.” In the fiery blaze?
A murmur of excitement stirred A breath of spring surprised them,
All souls. Stilling Moses’ words.
They wondered if they dreamed – No one could speak, remembering
Save one old man who seemed The first fresh flowers,
Not even to have heard. The little singing birds.
Still others thought of fields new ploughed
Or apple trees
All blossom –boughed
Or some the way a dried bed fills And they, confused with joy
With water Knelt to adore
Laughing down green hills. Seeing that he wore
The fisherfolk dreamed of the foam Five crimson stars
On bright blue seas. He never had before.
The one old man who had not stirred
Remembered home. No canticle at all was sung
None toned a psalm or raised a greeting song.
And there he was A silent man alone
Splendid as the morning sun and fair Of all that throng
As only God is fair. Found tongue –
Not any other.
Close to his heart
When the embrace was done,
Old Joseph said
“How is your Mother?
How is your Mother, Son?”
~ Sister Joan Sobala