02 November 2010

All Souls’ Night: the twilight zone?

The Harrowing of Hell ... the icon reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light

Patrick Comerford

All Souls’ Day, Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin:

8 p.m., 2 November 2010.

Wisdom 3: 1-9; Romans 5: 5-11; John 5: 19-25.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today, on All Souls’ Day, we remember with gratitude and in prayer the faithful departed, and we look forward to being united with them again in the Communion of Saints before the Throne of the Lamb, when the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are joined as one heavenly host.

The custom of remembering the faithful departed on this day dates back to the tenth and eleventh centuries. In time, the entire month of November became associated in the Western Church with prayer for the departed.

Initially, many of the Reformers rejected All Souls’ Day because of the payments demanded for masses for the dead and the abuse in the sale of indulgences. And so, Anglicans fused All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Many Cambridge colleges owe their foundation to endowments to colleges of priests to pray for the souls of the benefactors, including Saint Catharine’s and Corpus Christi, where the Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, was once Master. But All Souls’ College in Oxford is one of the most unusual colleges I have visited in any university. Its fellows live in an academic limbo or purgatory, for they are the only members of the college, and there are no undergraduates, no students to teach or tutor for examinations; yet to become a fellow one must sit what is regarded as the world’s hardest and toughest examination.

Originally established, like so many Oxford and Cambridge colleges, for the theological education and training of English clergy, the full name of the body corporate is: “The Warden and the College of the Souls of all Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford.” That wonderful name is a colourful reminder that the tradition of remembering All Souls survived, even in a college name, in Anglicanism through the Reformation, and through the dark days of the mid-17th century.

Twilight at All Souls’ College, Oxford (Photograph © Benjamin Breen)

All Souls’ Day was renewed in the Anglican tradition in many places in the 19th century. Its observance was restored in the Alternative Service Book in 1980, and now features in Common Worship as a Lesser Festival, the “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day).” Commemorating those who died in faith is not a denial of heaven or of hell. Rather than being a denial of the essentials of the salvation story it is, in fact, an affirmation of the salvation story, a thanksgiving for our salvation and our redemption.

The Church remembers the faithful departed throughout the entire year. This day is different only in so far as it is the general, solemn day of commemoration when the Church remembers and gives thanks for all the faithful departed, whether or not we or the Church regard them as saints.

We should in prayer remember and give thanks for our departed relatives and friends, and entrust them to God’s tender love, care and mercy.

We do this in civic society – when we name streets, bridges, even shopping centres and airports, after the dead.

We do this in our families – if we drink toasts at meals to the fond memory of the dead, why not do so too at the family meal par excellence, the Eucharist?

If we can remember the dead of the Somme and Flanders, Gallipoli and Suvla, Derry, Aughrim and the Boyne, on Sunday marches to our parish churches, then we can remember the dead in our prayers in those churches when we are before the Throne of the Lamb, anticipating being in their company at the Heavenly Banquet.

If we erect monuments in our churches and gravestones in our churchyards to those we want all to remember, it is a more fitting memorial to bring their names in prayer before Christ who has conquered death once and for all.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition there are several All Souls’ Days throughout the year, especially on Saturdays. Saturday is the day Christ lay in the Tomb, and so all Saturdays are days for general prayer for the departed.

The Western tradition of the Church has traditionally contemplated the cross, and then the empty tomb … and has been totally agnostic about what happened in between, between dusk that Friday afternoon and dawn that Sunday morning. The deep joys of the Resurrection have often been overshadowed in the Western Church by the Way of the Cross, as though the Cross leads only to death. We have neglected Christ’s resting place, his tomb, and given little thought to what was happening in the Holy Sepulchre that holy weekend.

The Eastern Churches, which lack a clearly defined doctrine of Purgatory, have been more comfortable with exploring in depth the theme of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. For, while Christ’s body lays in the tomb, he is visiting those who were dead.

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light. It reminds us how much we are unable to comprehend – let alone take to heart as our own – our creedal statement that Christ “descended into Hell.”

The Apostle Peter tells us that when Christ died he went and preached to the spirits in prison “who in former times did not obey … For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does” (I Peter 3: 15b- 4: 8).

The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. The Harrowing of Hell is intimately bound up with the Resurrection, the Raising from the Dead, for as Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead, no matter where that may be in time and in space. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and his resurrection.

In icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of Hell. Sometimes, two angels are seen in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of Hell Adam and Eve, imprisoned there since their deaths, imprisoned along with all humanity because of sin. Christ breaks down the doors of Hell and leads the souls of the lost into Heaven. It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives buried in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?

In discussing the “Descent into Hell,” Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that if Christ’s mission did not result in the successful application of God’s love to every intended soul, how then can we think of it as a success? He emphasises Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be “Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 5).

However, in her book Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick says Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of Hell, that he only stayed in the top levels. She cannot agree that Christ’s descent into Hell entails experiencing the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through the Resurrection. Instead, she says, Christ descends only to the “limbo of the Fathers” in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament waited for his coming.

And so her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into Hell and experience there the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves us with a Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death – as though he is merely ringing on the doorbell for those ready to come out.

However, Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully, in The Indwelling of Light, on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. “The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.”

He says: “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … [This] icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ [is] there to implant the possibility … of another future.” [Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, p. 38.]

I ask myself: what’s the difference between the top levels of Hell and the bottom levels of Hell? Is my Hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and I work, in my society, in this world? Is hell the nightmares from the past I cannot shake off, or the fears for the future when it looks gloomy and desolate for the planet? But is anything too hard for Lord?

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Where are the depths of my heart and my soul, where darkness prevails, where I feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even I am afraid to think about, let alone contemplate, may be beyond my reach. I cannot produce or manufacture my own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from myself.

But Christ breaks down the gates of Hell. He rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God. Plummeting the depths of Hell, he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light.

Hell is where God is not; Christ is God, and his decent into Hell pushes back Hell’s boundaries. In his descent into Hell, Christ reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible. Christ plummets even those deepest depths, and his love and mercy can raise us again to new life.

This evening, we think again of Christ in the grave, and ask him to take away all that denies life in us, whether it is a hell of our own making, a hell that has been forced on us, or a hell that surrounds us. Christ reaches down, and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory.

All Souls’ Day remembers with prayerful thanks the faithful departed, all those who have died with God’s grace and friendship. It has nothing to do with the ghouls and ghosts, or the hauntings of Halloween. All Souls’ Day, like All Saints’ Day, is a day to praise God for all the works he has done through his Church, his Church Militant and his Church Triumphant. It is not a day just to remember people and what they have done. It is a day to remember what God has done for his people, to celebrate that the Gates of Hell have never prevailed against the Church. For God redeems people in every generation and makes them his own.


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist on All Souls’ Day, 2 November 2010, in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin.

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