On Good Friday I enjoyed the St. John Passion at my home church. It is one of Bach’s finest musical offerings, written in 1724 to be performed at his church in Leipzig. The most moving part for me of the whole work is the chorus “Rest Well,” the penultimate song. It is a devotional poem that bids farewell to the body of Jesus and asks for peace for believers.
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 . . .
Lyrical and somber, it is the climax of the Passion.
The church has long puzzled about Holy Saturday, about which the Gospels are mostly silent, with the exception of Matthew 12:38-41. Was Jesus “resting” or was there other work to be completed? Later New Testament texts contended that “he descended into hell” and proclaimed release to the captives (1 Peter 3:19ff). One of the pastoral questions was whether those who died prior to Christ would have opportunity to hear the Gospel. Another question was about the meaning of “opening” or “closing” the gates of hell.
As the most controversial affirmation of the Apostles Creed, the idea of Jesus descending into the realm of the dead has proven challenging for interpreters. Some traditions refuse to include it, and few contemporary persons probe it theologically. Some scholars have suggested that it simply means Jesus suffered greatly on the cross; others contend that this trans-historical event reveals that hell is not eternal and that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, even beneath the earth where Hades or Sheol collected the dead. My friend Steve Harmon, adroit ecclesial theologian, describes this event as “about the unseen in the reality of death.”
We are now into Eastertide, suffused with the celebrative songs of resurrection and the smell of lilies. We offer glad thanks that the grave is not the end for those following the way of Jesus. Yet, we know that as the middle of the three days, between Good Friday and Sunday, Holy Saturday speaks deep truth to those whose lives are in bondage. There is no place that the Risen Christ cannot “harrow,” and he desires to meet all who live in hellish despair.
“Resting well,” thus is not just about the life of Jesus, but is the hope of all. When Christ rises, he finds ways to include those who long for his redemption, and invites those to this eternal rest.
Molly T. Marshall
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