Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Holy Saturday may be the strangest day of the church year.
It is invisible.
Thursday evening begins what is known in the liturgy as the Sacred Triduum - the holy three days. The feast begins with Maundy Thursday, followed by Good Friday, and concludes with the Great Vigil of Easter. Saturday is as quiet as the empty tomb. There is a brief liturgy for the morning, slipped in like an asterisk.
There is an ancient tradition about this day, but in our damnation-shy culture, we have soft pedaled it into silence. Mysterious reference is made to this tradition in the Apostle's Creed.
He was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell.When I asked my parents about this unlikely phrase, they explained to me that in Greek, the word hades also meant a grave, so the creed was just affirming that Jesus spend a day in a tomb. This interpretation is so prevalent that in many parts of the contemporary church, the phrase has been altered to "He descended to the dead." He went where dead people go. He was buried.
John Calvin, who had no modern scruples about Hell interpreted the tradition another way. To him, Christ's descent into Hell was the spiritual completion of his fleshly passion. Jesus' redemptive suffering continued after his earthly death when his spirit, forsaken by the father, descended to experience the tortures of the damned in Hell. In Calvin's eyes, this made the price of redemption all the more precious and elevated Christ's sacrifice to a cosmic scale.
The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (aka The Acts of Pilate) proposed another explanation - one that has been embraced by the church for centuries. The Gospel of Nicodemus records the testimony of three men raised from the dead who came to Jerusalem to bear witness:
We then were in Hades, with all who had fallen asleep since the beginning of the world. And at the hour of midnight there rose a light as if of the sun, and shone into these dark regions; and we were all lighted up, and saw each other. And straightway our father Abraham was united with the patriarchs and the prophets, and at the same time they were filled with joy, and said to each other: This light is from a great source of light. The prophet Hesaias, who was there present, said: This light is from the Father, and from the Son, and from the Holy Spirit; about whom I prophesied when yet alive, saying, The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, the people that sat in darkness, have seen a great light.This is not the Hades my father told me about. These souls were with the damned in Hell. With nothing but their own righteousness to commend them, they could not enter communion with God in Heaven. They had died without the redeeming blood of Christ.
Many artists have taken up this theme.Fra Angelico shows the Devil crushed under the broken down gates of Hell where Christ has flung them. Jesus' outstretched arm extends deliverance the the faithful dead. Traditionally Adam and John the Baptist are first in line.
Pieter Huys renders the "Harrowing of Hell" on a grand scale. In a graphic hell-scape reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, Huys pictures the light of Christ piercing the darkness of Hell where some are redeemed, some are past hope, and some tortured souls cannot bear to even look upon the savior as he approaches.
Some of my favorite interpretations of the "Harrowing" tradition are those of the great German engraver, Albrecht Durer. One is startled by their intimacy. Here it is the demons who are tortured by Christ's holy presence. The redeemed stand triumphant, pulled from the mouth of hell by a savior who is as much action hero as spiritual deliverer.
Durer's Christ bears the banner of a victorious warrior, reclaiming Hell's hostages to lead them home. Adam, Eve, and the Patriarchs have the look of people shocked by their own liberation, while the Baptist appears to be explaining who and what this man Jesus is, even as he did in life.
I find the etching dated 1512 to be the most beautiful of all. The violence of the destruction of Hell's gates is evident as they lie smoldering, consumed by Hell's own fire. Demons cower helplessly as Eve gazes lovingly at Adam, while the first man watches in amazement as the goat skin clad Baptist, his hands clenched in prayerful gratitude is lifted by his wrists out of the fire and into the light.
What happened on that silent Second Day? Certainly Jesus' body spent it in the hades of Joseph's tomb. It is difficult to argue with Calvin's interpretation. It is carefully reasoned and theologically unassailable.
Still, the "Harrowing" is the most firmly rooted in tradition. The image of Christ reaching his powerful arm and lifting the faithful out of the fires of Hell is inspiring for two reasons.
First, it satisfies our sense of Justice. It is unimaginable that God would allow good people to suffer forever because of their ignorance of Jesus redeeming death and resurrection. Second, it assures us that there is no depth to which we can sink that is beyond the saving grasp of Christ. Not even the gates of Hell can separate us from the God who loves us and longs for our redemption.
It is Holy Saturday - the invisible holy day. The Lenten fast is not yet complete. The resurrection is not yet accomplished.
But in the silence, God's saving work through Christ has already begun.
Thanks be to God.