Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday

March 22, 2008

1 Peter 4.1-8

Today, we are making our way through the Second Day—a sorrowful day, a dark and dismal day in our following of Jesus. The body of Jesus, deceived, betrayed, mocked, humiliated, beaten and tortured and brutally murdered, has been buried. It lies now in a tomb not even his own—but belonging to Joseph of Arimathea—who was brave enough to share his tomb with Jesus.This is the story we know of his body. But where is Jesus today? Where is he in this strange state between the time he breathed his last yesterday afternoon and when he will arise in glory tomorrow morning?

Today, of course, is the day we traditionally observe what has been called, the Harrowing of Hell. This is one of my favorite images—the descent of Jesus to the place of death. But, what is the Harrowing of Hell?

To fully understand what the Harrowing is all about, let us examine the word “harrowing” It’s a word that has several different meanings. Of course, for those of us from farming backgrounds, we know that harrowing can mean to plow, to break up soil. But it can also mean to bring great distress on someone, to torment. It can also mean to plunder or sack and it is this definition we use when describing the Harrowing of Hell.

But the other definitions work as well to some extent. Christ descended to hell and, in a sense, broke it up—he plowed death under. In doing so, he really did bring great distress and torment to the powers of evil—namely to death.

Scripturally, we find that what we refer to as hell may more appropriately be referred to as Hades, or the place where dead people went. In Acts 2.27 and 2.31, we find that death—Hades—could not hold Jesus. But probably the most common places in scripture we find any reference to Jesus’ descent among the dead are in Peter’s first letter, right before the reading we hear in today’s liturgy. In Chapter 3, verses 19 and 20, we find that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in days of Noah.”In today’s reading, we find, in Chapter 4, verse 6, that the gospel was “proclaimed even to the dead…”

I love the idea of the harrowing of hell because it shows how powerful Jesus truly is. Not even in death, not even in hell, are we separated from the love of Jesus. Even there, even in the depths of whatever hell we might ever find ourselves in, Jesus still has to the power to free us. Even the powers of death cannot separate us from the love Jesus has for us.And this is probably our greatest consolation on this day in which Jesus seems far from us, hidden from us, at least temporarily, by the forces of death. On this day, even today, when all seems lost, we realize that the love of Jesus is the most powerful force ever. It has the power to go where it needs to go, to change what it needs to change and to defeat what it needs to defeat. Even our greatest enemy—death—is defeated in the power of Jesus’ love.

There is a wonderful poem in which we experience the Harrowing of Hell from Jesus’ perspective. It is found in an early Christian writing called the Odes of Solomon. I have adapted it into a poem that I am going to close today with. As we listen to it, it is not hard to imagine what a powerful event the Harrowing of Hell was. And that, as powerful as it was, it cannot compare to what is going to happen to all of us tomorrow, with Jesus’ victory over death by his rising from the tomb.

The Harrowing

after the Odes of Solomon

by Jamie Parsley

Do not think I’m rejected
despite what everyone says—
despite what you saw.
Don’t think I died
although my obituary went to print.

Hell saw me when I drew near
and turned blue with ice.

Death refused me. It went
stumbling from the cemetery,
taking with it the bones and skulls
it hid within.

I am vinegar. I am a bitter taste.
I went down into the deep as far
as I could go.

Only then did the feet and head of hell
refuse me—unable
to endure my face.

I went down to the congregation of the dead
and made them live again with the words
I spoke with lips burning with life.
What I spoke lived!

Everyone who had died—
who had went to their end in anguish,
or terror
or without hope,
who went crying and lamenting,
clutching for one more moment of life—
came returning to me
from across that dark place.
They came to me crying,
“Mercy! Have mercy!
Have mercy on us,
O Son of God!

“Be kind to us
who do not deserve your kindness
and shatter these chains of darkness.

“Break down this awful door—
so we can come to you—
you, whom death goes
fleeing from.

“Save us, Savior,
and let us be saved!”

When I heard them,
I took their words
and placed them within my heart.

I took my name—
my I AM—
and placed it on their foreheads.
In doing so, I freed them
from their death and made them—
once and forever—

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