To Hell and Back

By James Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 27:45-54

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”


After Jesus dies on the cross, the evangelist describes the rending of the veil in the temple, the splitting of rocks in an earthquake, and most mysteriously, the rising of saints from the dead. To understand all these strange events is too much work for one devotional. But let us meditate on three truths:

First, Jesus is God. The rending of the veil in the temple is a sign, not that anyone can now enter the Holy of Holies (Jesus has not yet been raised), but that the LORD has gone out. God came down to earth to be utterly united to humanity. Now, once more, he is on the move; he is going to harrow hell.

Second, death is cataclysmic. When we die, our spirits do not simply drift quietly into the air. Our souls are divided from our bodies — a violent act — just as the rocks split and the earth quakes at the death of the Son of Man. At the heart of every death is an act of unspeakable splitting that shudders through creation itself. It is at Jesus’ death that we see this most.

Third, the Resurrection is similarly cataclysmic, and cosmic. At Christ’s resurrection from the dead, he returns with such power that the lifegiving Spirit who raises him emanates through the earth itself, stirring life within the lifeless once again. Just as the death of God sends shockwaves through all creation, his Resurrection liberally throws forth new life where formerly lay only dry bones.

Although in death we may see the image of utter darkness, in the Resurrection we may reflect on how that darkness is overwhelmed by the abundant light of Christ — whose death and Resurrection each proclaim his glory throughout all creation.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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