Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

+ Over the years, you’ve heard me share my deep appreciation for the Eastern Orthodox Church. I will admit that I have learned a lot about being a Christian from the Orthodox Church. And, from my appreciation, I have been able to see things through a new lens on Christianity as a whole—and with it, a deeper understanding of some basic beliefs.


One of these, of course, is what I often talk about on Holy Saturday—the traditional belief of the Harrowing of Hell. In the Narthex, you will find the very traditional icon of the Harrowing of Hell. In it you will see Jesus rising from the tomb. He is pulling, with one hand, an old man, and with the other hand, an old woman, from their respective tombs. Beneath them, you see the dark abyss, filled with skulls and bones. Above them, you will see the glory of God in bright gold.

As you have heard me say before, the old man, of course, represents Adam, the old woman, Eve. But there is an even more interesting aspect to this. It seems that, in the Orthodox Church, they never really portray the empty tomb, like we find in our Western churches.

In our Western Churches, there is a lot of talk about the empty tomb. On this Holy Saturday, there is a lot of attention paid to the empty tomb. But in the Eastern Church, the perspective is a bit different. On this day, their perspective is with Jesus as he descends to hell.

The harrowing of hell refers to the events that happened between yesterday, on Good Friday, with his death, and tomorrow, with the Resurrection. The early Church believed that, on this day, Jesus descended into hell and, while, there, rescued all the souls of the people who died before then, starting, of course, with Adam and Eve. And it’s not enough that we simply encounter a sweet-faced Jesus descending into hell and pulling dead people from tombs. The belief, in the Orthodox Church, isn’t that he gently descend into hell and wandered about. Their belief is that he came storming into hell, and that he actually broke down the doors of hell and brought those souls to heaven.

Now, before we think this is all some quaint exotic Eastern tradition, there are some scriptural references that might help us. For example in 1 Peter 3.18-20a we find this:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. 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…

And in 1 Peter 4.6

For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

And in Ephesians 4.8-10

Therefore it is said,
'When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

Peter really seemed to believe in this descent into hell. In his sermons in Acts chapter 2.27, 31, we find him actually referencing it.

And certainly there’s no getting around the Apostle's Creed in which we specifically profess our belief that :

He descended into hell.

For the Orthodox, this belief in the harrowing of hell is actually the most prevalent part of the Easter celebration. While we may see the empty tomb as the ultimate victory of Christ over death, for the Orthodox, they see Jesus’ emptying of hell to be an even greater victory. For me, I like the fact that the harrowing hell really does help us fill in the blank of this day of Holy Saturday.

The empty tomb is a wonderful point of reference for us today, but, personally, I need more. I need this story of Jesus—a Jesus who will come to me even in the very depths of hell and will rescue me. And we’ve all been there. We’ve all been in our own hells.

It’s wonderful to know that no matter how far we might seem to have gone from Christ, Christ will come to us wherever we are and take us to himself.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan William, in his book, The Indwelling of Light, makes some interesting comments about the icon of Jesus with Adam and Eve. He writes,

"As his hand grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, Jesus goes back to embrace the first imaginable moment of rebellion and false direction in human life...we are reminded that he goes fully into the depths of human agony. He reaches back to and beyond where human memory begins: 'Adam and Eve' stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began--not a moment we can date in ordinary history, any more than we can date in the history of each one of us where we began to forget God. But we are always dealing with the after-effects of that moment, both as a human race and as particular persons. The icon declares that wherever that lost moment is or was, Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future..."

I know some people might have an issue with such a belief, but I truly do believe, and I very unapologetically believe, that not even hell can separate us from Christ’s love.

As Nora Gallagher writes in her book, The Sacred Meal:

“Christ is everywhere….No Hell is powerful enough to keep out the resurrection life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Christ is everywhere, his life is not parceled out in scarcity, only there on a throne in heaven or only here among the good churchgoing people, but abundantly present everywhere, freely given, everywhere where things long to be whole and loving and struggle to be free.”

Even in hell, I believe, Christ is able to come to us and that his love for us can defeat whatever hold hell might have on any of us.

So, on this Holy Saturday in which we are experiencing this empty moment, this blank and heavy dark moment before the glorious Light of Easter, let us take consolation in the fact that no matter how dark it might be, no matter how bleak or empty it might feel, even here, Christ is present and he will grasp us by the hand and lift us up from this dark moment into the glorious Light of his love.

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