One of the few passages of spiritual value in the Apocryphal Gospels, and the only one that left its mark on the Apostles Creed, is that which describes the coming of the soul of Christ into the unseen world of the departed: his “descent into hell” to rescue those “spirits in prison” to whom the revelation of the Divine Charity had not been given on earth. The event shows us the liberated soul of Jesus, robed in that humanity which endured the anguish of the passion, and passed straight from this anguish into the delighted exercise of saving charity.
He comes with an irresistible rush, bearing the banner of redemption to the imprisoned souls of those who knew him not. There they are, pressing forward to the mouth of The Cave; the darkness, narrowness, and unreality from which he comes to free them, at his own great cost. The awed delight of the souls He rescues is nothing beside the Rescuers own ecstatic delight. It is as if the charity given on Calvary could not wait a moment, for He rushed straight to the awaiting joy of releasing the souls of men. There is no hint of the agony and darkness through which He has won the power to do this. Everything is forgotten but the need which the Jesus is able to meet.
That scene, if we place it as we should before the lovely story of Easter and the 40 days, helps us to an understanding of their special quality; and sets before us the rescuing love as the standard of Christian holiness, and its production in us as the very object of our transformation. For this is our tiny share in the Divine action that brings the supernatural charity right down into the confusion and sorrows of our life, to “save” and transform ourselves and others.
Jesus’ Power of Love Poured Out Through Us
Here we look at Jesus, that “risen life” which has power and triumph in virtue of its love. And the deepest truth about ourselves is, that we are human beings and therefore have in ourselves the capacity for the same triumphal power of love, if we are willing to face the cost. The cost is that crucifying struggle with our natural self-love, that passive endurance of the Divine Action which brings the soul out of the narrow, intense, individual life—even though it be an apparently religious life—into the wide self-spending universal life of the Divine Charity. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” But tension, suffering, and utter helplessness mark our lives and often stimulates that crucial change of heart.
When Christ said, “My Father and your Father—My God and your God,” he made a declaration which must enslave and transfigure the whole lives of those who realize what is implied in it, conferring on them the tremendous privilege of partnership. “Fellow workers with God, become co-heirs with Christ.”
After that, the soul’s own life is to be “in the spirit”; that is, delivered from the tensions and struggles of those who are still striving to adjust the claims of two worlds (secular and spiritual). Everything is left behind which does not contribute to God’s purposes; and so, all that is left is harmonized within His peace. To them that are perishing, said Saint Paul, such a program is foolishness: “but unto us which are being saved it is the power of God.” It is, in fact, what Christianity really means; and if Christians chose to stand up to this obligation, they could transform the world, continuing the work of the original apostles.
Jesus’ Love for the Disciples
When Jesus first appeared to the disciples after his ascension, the scene has for us an otherworldly beauty. We see it bathed in a supernatural light. But for Peter and Thomas, James and John, it happened under normal conditions of time and place. Frightened, weary, and discouraged, worried about the future and remorseful about the past, for them the wonder lived in the quiet return of the Holy and Immortal who was yet the familiar and the human, to the commonplace surroundings in which they had known Him best.
Silently disregarding their disappointing qualities, their stupidity, cowardice, and lack of trust, he came back to them as pure charity; came back to their level as one that serves, making visible the Invisible love of God, and gave the guarantee which their petty standards demanded, and their narrow souls could understand. Thus, by this unblemished courtesy, “binding His Majesty to our lowliness,” he restored their faith, hope, and charity. The very heart of the Christian revelation is disclosed in that scene.
It shows that the Spirit of the Father is creative love. That is the fundamental quality which man shares with God, and which constitutes his kinship with God. When this rules his life he becomes, in one way or another, an agent of the Eternal Charity. That, of course, in its perfection is the secret of the Saints and the disciples, the cause of what we call their “supernatural power.”
Jesus said “My Father and your Father” which means that we are the children of God, the Eternal Perfect, Whose essential nature is generous love; and that we are destined to manifest the splendor of God in and through our daily lives, our long and arduous laborers, self-givings, and sufferings, which the Divine Wisdom poured forth once and pours forth still. It means a new quality of life possible to us and awaiting us; not somewhere else, but where we are now.
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Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, (1 Peter 3:19-20)
This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) (Ephesians 4:8-10)
The Apostles Creed – Ecumenical Version
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Essential Writings by Evelyn Underhill