Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

IN REFLECTING UPON where did Jesus go?and what did Jesus do on Holy Saturday? as his body lay in the tomb, there is apparently some movement among Evangelicals to have the line, "He descended into hell," removed from the Apostles Creed. Those who are proponents of the elimination claim that the idea does not reflect a biblical view and that it is a mistake - "An old mistake is still a mistake," they say.

Avoiding theological contention we might consider this painting here by Pieter Huys a 16th century Flemish artist. I've tried to maximize the image so we can look carefully - we might even use a magnifying glass to get a fuller idea. We can only use pictures to search the meaning of the creedal line: He descended into hell. Hell is a spiritual realm - though the artist has given it a physical expression. 

"Hell" is the deepest place of our loss. It is the place of our deepest death, chaos, ugliness, misery, flame, horror, inflicted pain and hate. Anyone can fall into this condition as we notice that there are clergy in the midst of the horrific scene. Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of the Easter Christ. Alleluia!

Into all of this insanity, Christ suddenly has appeared in light. He is not there to punish violently or obliterate but to reclaim, restore, renew and enliven. I knew a young man whose life was ruined by drugs, rebellion, selfishness, idolatry, waste and hatred. Tapping his head he said, "Father, this is my neighborhood, and it's a dangerous neighborhood to go into." So he would understand this image - as would anyone who reflects upon his or her own personal life - a time from our youth perhaps, a time of regrets, a time when we were lost to the things born from above. A time we might call hell. Bring all of this to Easter.

But there is more. Here is an image quite different. Jesus has gone down to the depth of our death and hell, but this time everyone seems to be waiting for him - anticipating and expecting him with wide-eyed joy and gratitude. Who is there? The prophets and kings of Israel, the three magi of Bethlehem, holy Simeon and Ana, John the Baptist, Saint Joseph, all those who awaited the Messiah.

Look at Jesus in his great and gentle courtesy. It seems that he will greet each  individually. Perhaps as Jesus bends low to peer through the door to death, the crowd sings, like children in chorus, "You have found us." Of course Adam and Eve are there, but probably last as they are the parents of us all. 

Christ's greeting might have been like the scene in many churches on Holy Saturday night: the great candle symbolizing his resurrection entered the church and one by one we took the flame to ourselves until darkness and all that is symbolized by it, was pushed away. In some places then, after the taking of the Christ-light there is a procession around the outside of the church, circling three times. But the ultimate procession we make carrying the Resurrection-Light is not made while going in circles but outwardly and beyond - to heaven.

Here is an Eastern Christian hymn where the underworld of death, Hades or hell is personified with a voice, lamenting the mistake of welcoming Christ, who turns out to be the Spoiler. It's quite powerful.

Today Hades tearfully sighs - "Would that I had not received him who was born of Mary, for he came to me and destroyed my power, he broke my bronze gates, and being God, delivered the souls I had been holding captive," O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy Resurrection.


  1. Many Orthodox churches contemplate the mystery of Jesus Christ’s descent into Hades, the world of the dead. According to the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, death is defeated from within. It is the day of watchful expectation when mourning is transformed into joy. We await the Resurrection. Thank you for this post for Holy Saturday seems to be passed over in the Western Church.

    1. "...mourning transformed into joy." There it is! I send an Easter blessing to your family!