Sabbath dawns, and the Gospels are silent about whether Jesus made his way to paradise, as promised on the cross. We, along with early Christian writers, ponder the question of what transpired in Jesus’ life between burial and resurrection.
Acts 2:31 hastens to inform the reader that although the death of Jesus was real and complete, he was not abandoned to the underworld where his body would decay. But where did he spend Sabbath? Was there a time of resting from his labors, as Bach suggests in The St. John Passion?
Rest well, Thou holy body sleeping, that I may cease from further weeping.
Rest well, and let me, too, rest well.
The grace that is prepared for Thee, and holds no further grief for me,
Doth open heaven wide and close the gates of hell.
Rest well . . .
An early apostolic tradition found in 1 Peter depicts Jesus descending to the realm of the dead to proclaim liberation.
Jesus was put to death in the flesh but was given life in the Spirit. And in the Spirit, Jesus went and preached to the imprisoned spirits. They had refused obedience long ago . . . (3:19-20a)
Explaining God’s faithfulness in wanting to make sure those before the time of Christ were not excluded, the writer adds:
This explains why the Gospel was preached also to the dead—that though judged in the flesh like the rest of humankind, they might live for God in the Spirit (4:6).
While we are not sure to whom Jesus preached, the early creeds noted “he descended into hell” in order to assure that the Gospel is withheld from no one.
Early iconography of the harrowing of hell portrays Jesus opening the gates of the realm of the dead, inviting them to emerge into the new life he provides. Such is God’s hope for all humanity, but can it become reality?
Holy Saturday calls us to quiet the heart and wait.
Molly T. Marshall