The Harrowing of Hell

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell   | 11 April 2020

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.

 He descended into Hell… [to the dead]” – from the Apostles’ Creed

I’d like to welcome you on this beautiful Holy Saturday to join me in the delightful Columbarium garden here at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. It also features and outdoor labyrinth that is used for walking meditation, and it’s open 24 hours a day to the public. This is a great setting for reflection on one of the most Holy Days in the Christian calendar. 

Holy Week is a wonderful tradition that is observed by many Christians throughout the world, an particularly in Anglican Churches, or the Episcopal Church as it is known here in the States.  In this week we remember the last week of Jesus’ life leading up to his Resurrection from the Dead on Easter Day. The week begins on Palm Sunday with triumphant shouts of Hosanna and waving of palm branches as Jesus enters triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem. On Wednesday we remember the deal of betrayal that Judas struck with the religious power brokers of the day. On Maundy Thursday we recall the Last Supper where Christ instituted the  Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, where he wrapped himself in a towel and washed his disciples feet. Later on Thursday we recall his betrayal sealed with a kiss from Judas, and his arrest, trial, and conviction. On Friday, that strangely is called Good Friday he endures torture, mocking, and a horrible capital punishment on a cross that resulted in his receiving the death penalty.

Where Christ is and what he is doing at this time of Holy Saturday may be a bit sketchier for us. We know he died, that he was interred in a garden tomb where he was wrapped in 100lb. of aloes, and spices. But where did he go? From both scripture and tradition, we can find some information. In the First letter of Peter we find these words: “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is , eight persons were saved through water.”[I Pet. 3.19-20]

The oldest creed of the Church known as the Apostles’ Creed puts it simply,

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.He descended into Hell… [to the dead]”

In the Medieval Church this came to be called, the “Harrowing of Hell.” That is the defeat of sin, death, and of all evil powers. There is a painting I’d like to show you of this:  it is by Fra Angelico and from the 14th century. The defeat of the devil and of evil death is symbolized by the dark demon being crushed by the door, and Christ reaching out to the souls who were in a mysterious place of suffering, Hades or Gehenna.

We have a Compassionate Savior who from the very beginning was in Solidarity with humanity.

The Psalmist bears out that there is no place God is not or hasn’t ever been: “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.” [Psalm 139.6-7]

Christ experienced the full weight of sin, from all time, for all people so that he could save the whole world. From his abandonment from God on the cross, to his descent into hades, Jesus has been there; there is no place of suffering that he does not or cannot understand – tomorrow he will arise victorious, and nothing can ever finally separate us form the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

 

 

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