And so here we are: this is Holy Week, the final days of Lent. It is a time jam-packed with emotional lows and highs, powerful theology and moving services such as the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Tenebrae, and the vigils of Saturday night. Or maybe you are braving the Good Friday service with your four-year-old. There’s a story I really want to tell you sometime about when Zach went to a service where he saw a Jesus as an actor put up on a cross. He was very disappointed in the behavior of the centurions, but that’s for another day.
In this Lenten reflection, I want to talk about an often overlooked part of the week and the message that it bears. I want to talk about the Harrowing of Hell.
Christian tradition says that after his crucifixion and entombment, Jesus arose and embarked on a mission of rescue. Many of us recite that as part of the Apostles’ or the Athanasian Creed: “He was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into Hell.” But what was Christ doing in the infernal regions? What business had he in Hell? Thousands of medieval paintings, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts depict Jesus leading Adam firmly by the wrist as they, Eve, and a line of Old Testament figures emerge from the darkest depths into the light. At the feet of Christ are the tools of imprisonment—locks, keys, and chains—and a demon crushed by the gates of Hell which Christ has blown open.
In Dante’s Inferno, the poet’s guide Virgil (who had been present among the dead at the time) tells him of how he had personally seen “a powerful one” come to retrieve the Hebrew patriarchs, but my favorite literary depiction of this episode comes from the 14th-century poem in Middle English called Piers Plowman by John Langland. It depicts Christ’s arrival in the devil’s kingdom as a sudden explosion of light, in a place that had known light only once before, when Lazarus had been summoned back to life by Jesus. The various fiends are much disturbed by this but the archdevil is determined to tough it out; these sinners’ souls, after all, belonged rightfully to him. But the light is at the gate:
Again the light commanded them to unlock, and Lucifer answered, “Who is this? What lord are you?” Swiftly the light replied: “The king of glory; the Lord of might and main and all manner of virtues; the Lord of power. Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates at once, that Christ may come in, the King of heaven’s Son!”
And with that breath hell broke open, and Belial’s bars; in spite of any guard or watchman, the gates opened wide. Patriarchs and prophets, the people in darkness, sang St John’s song: ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ Lucifer could not look, he was so blinded by light. And those whom Our Lord loved he caught up into his light, and said to Satan:
“Lo, here is my soul to make amends for all sinful souls, to save those who are worthy. Mine they are, and of me, and so I may the better claim them… I will lead from hence the people whom I loved and who believed in my coming.”
Some theologians, ancient and modern, have expressed misgivings about this story and some even refuse to recite the line about the descent into Hell when they say the Creed. But for me, the message is far too powerful to be ignored. It is a simple message: there is no place you can go where God will not find you and lead you home. All the scars that cover us, all the wounds that we have inflicted on others, all the pain that you carry, don’t matter in the end. All our dirt will be cleansed, our incisions healed, our grief wiped away. Nobody who wants to go with him gets left behind.
May God bless you with a joyful Easter. And if you’re one of the lucky ones chosen as the Roman centurion in this year’s play, I apologize in advance for my kid.