• Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #10



Unknown, Anastasis, c. 1310

“He descended into hell.” It is a phrase from the Apostle’s Creed to which many of us probably haven’t given much consideration, but it is based upon a couple of somewhat perplexing passages from the New Testament. Ephesians 4:8-10 offers us the basic scenario of what happened between Christ’s death and resurrection, though it is missing the tantalizing details: “When He ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men. What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” 1 Peter 3:19-20 makes reference to Christ preaching to “the spirits in prison” who were awaiting His final victory over death. Scholars are not in agreement about exactly what these passages mean, but there is a strong tradition suggesting that Jesus descended into hell after His death to defeat its power once and for all. And in so doing, He rescued those who were in captivity to hell with the power of resurrection. This Byzantine fresco, a primary image of Easter for the Orthodox Church, is called Anastasis, or sometimes Christ’s Descent into Hades. We see the resurrected Christ, His robe billowing upward as He descends, surrounded by a star-spangled, almond-shaped burst of light (often referred to as the “Mandorla”). He has conquered death and has come to set its captives free. He stands astride the broken gates of hell, with the keys of hell and death beneath His feet. Amidst all those various kinds of keys lies the bound figure of Hades (the Devil), for He has come to destroy the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). Christ reaches into the tombs of our original parents, Adam and Eve, and takes their wrists, literally pulling them out of their caskets and into His light. Their release is the first fruits of His cosmic rescue mission. In the image He is flanked by various Old Testament saints, among them John the Baptist and King David on the left, and Abel (the first innocent person to be killed) on the right. All have been awaiting His salvation. The event depicted in this stunning fresco is traditionally referred to as “the harrowing of hell,” making use of an Old English word picture describing a raid being made upon a foreign power in a time of war. Jesus has come to do battle and to win a victory over sin and death. Whether or not the brief and unspecific biblical texts regarding this event are strong enough to confirm this as an actual intermediate event between Christ’s death and resurrection, it is at very least a powerful metaphor for expressing the idea that what Jesus accomplished was not just for those who were alive at the time of His crucifixion and resurrection, but that its power stretched both forward and backward in time. He was making a way for those yet to come, as well as for the faithful of past times. He was the Savior of the Old Testament saints as well as yours and mine.

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