THE BEST COURSE I ever took was a class on Dante, taught by Dr. Anthony Cassell (+2006) at the University of Illinois. Dr. Cassell used hundreds of sources, including works of art and poetry, to place you in the mindset and worldview of a medieval Italian such as Dante Alighieri. Perhaps the one source that has stayed with me after nearly 20 years was a riveting account of Christ’s descent into Hell to set free the righteous dead who were awaiting a Redeemer.
The account that Dr. Cassell read to us, though ancient, impressed me with its buildup of tension and drama. It was almost modern in its pacing and action, but in subsequent years I couldn’t recall where it came from. Finally, I located the source just before this year’s Holy Week. It comes from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, and I’m including it below.
God bless you, please pray for the soul of Dr. Cassell. Matthew Manint
(Before the scene, Satan and Hades are discussing the death of Christ, and whether there is any danger in taking him prisoner among the rest of the dead. They are worried that he comes from God, and might be more powerful than they expect. Christ has arrived outside the gate, about to command them to let him in.)
While Satan and Hades were thus speaking, a great voice thundered, saying, “Lift up your gates, ye rulers! Be lifted up, ancient gates, that the King of Glory may enter!” (Psalm 24)
Hades said to Satan, “Go forth, if you are able, and confront him!” As Satan left, Hades ordered his demons, “Secure the gate of brass and iron, make firm the bolts, and hold it fast—if he gets in here, woe unto us!”
The holy forefathers, listening in the darkness, began to taunt Hades, saying, “Insatiable, all-devouring Hades, open your gates that the King of Glory may come in! … For didn’t Isaiah, foreseeing this by the Holy Spirit, write, ‘The dead shall rise up, and those in the tombs shall be raised, and those in the earth shall rejoice’? Where now, O death, is your sting? Where now, O Hades, is your victory?”
The voice cried out again, “Lift up the gates!”
Hades, trembling and playing ignorant, replied, “Who is this King of Glory?”
A multitude of holy angels shouted, “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!” Immediately, the iron bars shattered, the brass doors crashed open, and all the dead who had been imprisoned came forth. The King of Glory entered as a man, and the dark gloom of Hades was filled with light.