Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday: The Harrowing of Hell

Today is the second day of the Easter Triduum, perhaps the most neglected and misunderstood day of the three. Our Book of Common Prayer puts an emphasis on rest in the Collect for the Day, as if Jesus is taking a breather off stage before the big production tonight at the Easter Vigil.

But our forbearers experienced and understood Holy Saturday much differently. Today is when Jesus descends into Hell to break the gates open wide and free everyone. The old English called it the "Harrowing of Hell" -- the robbery of Hell. 

If you look closely at icons and paintings from centuries ago, that is what you will see. The artwork posted here today is from a remarkable panel of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, by Benvento di Giovanni (Sienese) painted in 1491 depicting Jesus standing on the gate of Hell and pulling people out. Note the devil crushed under the gate.

This morning I will lead a few simple prayers at 9 am in the Chapel, marking Holy Saturday. Tonight at 7:30 pm is our first opportunity to proclaim the resurrection -- but we are not there yet. And if you have not seen my posting from last night, please scroll down.

I leave you, for now, with a simple poem by my friend, Franz Wright, and an item from theologian James Alison:

But if they were condemned to suffer
this unending torment, sooner or later
wouldn’t they become the holy?

Franz Wright, God’s Silence, 2006

“With this we can say… that Hell exists, as the Church has always maintained; nevertheless it is perfectly possible that there is nobody at all there.”

James Alison, Raising Abel, 1996

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