The Harrowing of Hell ... the icon reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light
I was in the RTÉ studios in Dublin this evening [27 November 2014] as part of a panel recording a programme on ‘Sin’ for Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level to be broadcast on Sunday week [7 December 2014].
These are briefing notes I prepared for myself in advance of the recording:
1, Confession and absolution in the Anglican liturgical tradition:
Westcott House, Cambridge ... Andrew Davison says ‘Confession is one of the most profound ways in which we can take the Christian moral life seriously’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
On their first visit to an Anglican church, many Roman Catholics notice the general absence of Confession Boxes. And so, there is a common perception that Anglicans, including members of the Church of Ireland, so not share a common theological ground on Sin and Confession, tat we have no understanding of confession and absolution, that we are lax and relaxed when it comes to our teachings on Sin. Is this so?
Last year , Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury spoke of the “great sacrament of reconciliation.” According to the report in the Daily Telegraph, he spoke of being part of a wider “catholic tradition”, adding: “I’ve learnt over the last 10 years about the great sacrament of reconciliation: confession. It is enormously powerful and hideously painful when it’s done properly … it’s really horrible when you go to see your confessor – I doubt you wake up in the morning and think, this is going to be a bunch of laughs.
“It’s really uncomfortable. But through it God releases forgiveness and absolution and a sense of cleansing.”
Andrew Davison of Westcott House, Cambridge, who is one of the most compelling Anglican theologians today, writes in his recent book Why Sacraments? that confession, rather than being understood in legalistic and moralistic terms, is an experience of grace renewing us in our baptismal vocation:
Confession is one of the most profound ways in which we can take the Christian moral life seriously. As a way to take stock of where we stand, and reach out urgently to God for grace to make progress on the way to perfect likeness of Christ, confession is the ideal way to reconnect to baptism. By it, we submit to God’s salvation taking the fullest possible hold upon us.
The ARCIC II statement, Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church, in its section addressing the common Anglican-Roman Catholic heritage on “growing up into Christ,” provides an outline for considering the role of sacramental confession:
The fidelity of the Church to the mind of Christ involves a continuing process of listening, learning, reflecting and teaching. In this process every member of the community has a part to play. Each person learns to reflect and act according to conscience. Conscience is informed by, and informs, the tradition and teaching of the community. Learning and teaching are a shared discipline, in which the faithful seek to discover together what obedience to the gospel of grace and the law of love entails amidst the moral perplexities of the world. It is this task of discovering the moral implications of the Gospel which calls for continuing discernment, constant repentance and “renewal of the mind” (Romans 12: 2), so that through discernment and response men and women may become what in Christ they already are (29).
It is in this context, Life in Christ states, that the Anglican formularies regard sacramental confession is “a wholesome means of grace” (46).
Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer have traditionally started with a Scriptural reminder of our sinfulness (The Book of Common Prayer, pp 84-85), one of the most commonly used verses being: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1: 8, 9).
Traditionally, this reminder was then followed by an immediate call to knell and confess our sins, with General Confession (p. 86), and absolution “or remission of sins” which is “pronounced by the priest alone.”
This tradition is continued in the revised forms of daily prayer, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer (see pp 101-102).
For all celebrations of Holy Communion or the Eucharist, there was also an opening call for confession, a reminder of the Ten Commandments (pp 180-181), and then at the Offertory we had the General Confession and absolution pronounced by the priest or the bishop (see The Book of Common Prayer, p 185).
This tradition continues today, although the Penitence is moved forward to the opening rite, with (sometimes) the reading of the Commandments, a General Confession, and absolution (see pp 201-203).
The traditional exhortations in The Book of Common Prayer urge all before coming to receive Holy Communion, to examine their consciences, to repent, and if their conscience shows them they need to, then to come to the priest to confess and “to receive the benefit of absolution, together with spiritual counsel and advice, to the quieting of his [or her] conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness”:
And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.
2, Finding a language and vocabulary of sin today:
Our categorisation and gradation of sin often reflects our own temporal values. In Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, the great sins were identified as sexual sins, because society was worried about family stability and about the transmission and inheritance of family property.
Today, with the economic crisis, we all feel condemned to suffer under the austerity measures. Naturally we then seek out individual “sinners” to take on the role of scapegoat … bankers, developers, politicians. We seldom blame ourselves, yet we live in a society where governments and politicians are more likely to be praised for cutting taxes and giving us more money to spend than for raising taxes and providing better public services such as health care, hospitals, schools, social services, education, and public transport.
We find it easy to identify the gross collective sins of recent history … genocide, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the massacres of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda and Burundi. I have seen Hitler portrayed in the fires of hell on the doom wall in a village church in Crete.
It has ever been so. We confine to damnation those whose sins we see, with the benefit of hindsight, as destabilising our societies and or societal values. Dante did it in his Inferno 700 years ago. His Nine Circles of Hell had reserved places for Popes (Celestine V, Anastasius II, Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, Clement V), heretics, schismatics, blood-letting crusaders, blasphemers, usurers, and corrupt politicians.
Like Dante, we invent our own circles of Hell. In interfaith dialogue, how do I explain to Muslims that Dante has confined their Prophet Muhammad to the Eighth Circle of Hell (Canto XXVIII) as a schismatic?
Dante sees the souls in Hell eternally fixed in the state they have chosen. But, Dante too becomes aware of his own sinfulness.
What we see as the sins of others are often the shadow side of ourselves, the deep sinfulness we hide within ourselves has light cast on it every time we denounce the sins we see in others.
Do we chose our own Hells, and live and die in them? Many of our ideas and concepts of Hell are derived not from the Bible but from Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).
We often hold up the Ten Commandments as the litmus test for sin, and for damnation. But for Christians there are two great commandments, to love God, and to love our neighbour, and sin must then be anything that separates us from the love of God and from the love of our neighbour, and Hell is where we find ourselves when we place ourselves beyond the capacity to give and receive that love.
3, Sin in the 39 Articles:
The 39 Articles are foundational for an understanding of the origins and development of Anglican theology. At least nine of the 39 Articles speak explicitly of sin:
Article 2 speaks of “original guilt” and the “actual sins of men” [and women]:
Article 9, “Of Original or Birth-Sin,” says:
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, phronema sarkos [Φρονεµα σαρκος], (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Article 13 speaks of even good works having “the nature of sin.”
Article 15 concerns “Of Christ alone without Sin.”
Article 16 addresses “Sin after Baptism”
Article 25 speaks of: “Of the Sacraments” lists five Sacraments of the Church, including Penance.
Article 26 discusses: “Of the Unworthiness of Ministers.”
Article 27, on the subject “Of Baptism,” mentions of “the promises of forgiveness of sin.”
Article 33 deals with excommunication.
4, Sin and confession in the classical Anglican theology:
The 16th century Anglican Reformers were not of one mind on the subject of confession. Those who held to a more continental and Calvinist approach tended to come close to dismissing Confession altogether as frivolous and a superstition. Those influenced more by Luther held a more sacramental view, rejecting the idea that the Sacrifice of Christ was for original sin alone, but recognising the Biblical injunction that gives to the Church the power of binding and loosing (Matthew 16: 13-19) and the power and authority to absolve sins (John 20: 21-23).
Thomas Becon (ca 1511–1567), who was chaplain to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, wrote in The Potation of Lent that private Confession to a priest is not an absolute necessity, yet conceded it is a very good thing: “Confession bringeth high tranquillity to the troubled conscience of a Christian man,” he said, “while the most comfortable words of absolution are rehearsed unto him by the Priest.”
Becon acknowledges the priest’s role to absolve, although he places it in the context of Christ’s work. Absolution is “a preaching of the free deliverance from all our sins through Christ’s blood. How say you, is here anything to be condemned in auricular confession thus used?”
John Jewel (1522-1571) suggests in one place that Christians might seek to make Confession to anyone, citing James 5, yet acknowledges the authority of bishops and priests, as Ministers of God’s Word, to exercise godly judgment:
Moreover, we say that Christ hath given to His Ministers power to bind, to loose, to open, to shut; and that the office of loosing consisteth in this point, that the Minister should either offer by the preaching of the Gospel the merits of Christ and full pardon to such as have lowly and contrite hearts, and do unfeignedly repent them, pronouncing unto the same a sure and undoubted forgiveness of their sins, and hope of everlasting salvation; or else that the Minister, when any have offended their brothers’ minds with a great offence, and with a notable and open fault, whereby they have, as it were, banished and made themselves strangers from the common fellowship and from the body of Christ, then after perfite amendment of such persons, doth reconcile them and bring them home again and restore them to the company and unity of the faithful.
The Book of Common Prayer sets out an important place for private Confession, found in the office of the Visitation of the Sick. After reciting the Baptismal Covenant, the sick person is invited to confess any sins that weigh on his or her conscience. The priest then says: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The 1549 rubic said this form of absolution was to be used “in all pryvate confessions.” That part of the rubric disappeared in 1552, but the practice of the Church was to continue use this absolution in all private confessions.
Among the Caroline Divines in the 17th century there was a more positive position, Francis White (ca 1564–1638) , writing in 1624, commends Confession broadly as a wonderful and holy office which offers the penitent counsel, reproof, comfort, absolution, and preparation for receiving Holy Communion.
While it is not required of all, White commends it to all as a godly practice, “consonant to the Holy Scriptures and anciently practised by the Primitive Church.” He is at great pains to accentuate the fact that bishops and priests have the exclusive authority to offer this:
Bishops and Ministers of the Church are Shepherds, Stewards, and Overseers of God’s people committed to their charge (1 Peter 5: 1-2; Acts 20: 28). They have received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and power to loose and bind sinners (Matthew 16: 19; Matthew 19: 18; John 20: 23). They have power to direct and govern their whole flock and every sheep and member of the same in things concerning their salvation. The people are subject to them in such offices and actions as concern their spiritual state (Hebrews 13: 17; I Thessalonians 5: 12). And if Christian people must confess and acknowledge their faults one to another (James 5: 16), then also when there is cause why should they not do the same to the Pastors of their souls?
Bishop John Cosin (1594-1672), the post-Restoration Bishop of Durham (and once a secretary to John Overall, Bishop of Lichfield), goes even further. He was prominently involved in the revision of The Book of Common Prayer in 1662. In his Notes and Collections on the Book of Common Prayer, he examines at length the theology of Confession in the Prayer Book, commending the form in the Visitation of the Sick as normative for Anglican theology.
Cosin is careful not to call Confession a Gospel Sacrament, but still describes it as “sacramental.” He points out that the words of the absolution are the same in the Church of England as in Rome and that they are also the same words used in liturgies in the ancient Church. He even goes so far as to draw a distinction between “venial sins” and “mortal sins,” just as the Roman Catholic Church has since mediaeval times:
Venial sins that separate not from the grace of God need not so much to trouble a man’s conscience; if he hath committed any mortal sin, then we require Confession of it to a Priest, who may give him, upon his true contrition and repentance, the benefit of Absolution, which takes effect according to his disposition that is absolved.
His distinction between “venial” and “mortal” sins may seem unusual in Anglicanism, yet he shows again that private Confession is an integral part of Anglicanism and encouraged strongly, that the priest offers absolution exclusively, and that penitence is required if the grace is to be properly received. Yet Cosin makes it abundantly clear that the grace one receives in Confession is not self-generated, lest a penitent worry that his or her lack of feeling contrite would nullify it.
Cosin says: “The truth is, that in the Priest’s Absolution, there is the true power and virtue of forgiveness, which will most certainly take effect, Nisi ponitur obex, as in Baptism.”
This deep regard for private Confession is found throughout the works of the Caroline Divines of the 17th century, from Francis White and Lancelot Andrewes to Jeremy Taylor and John Cosin. The one exception to this seems to be Richard Hooker (1554-1600), who seems to believe that all acts of Confession in the primitive Church were public rather than private.
But even Hooker acknowledges the authority of bishops and priests to offer absolution. In Book V of the Ecclesiastical Laws, he writes that through “the power of the Keys” they may offer absolution which the penitent should “accept the benefit thereof as God’s most merciful ordinance for their good, and, without any distrust or doubt, to embrace joyfully His grace so given them, according to the word of our Lord, which hath said ‘whose sins ye remit, they are remitted’.” The penitent is to accept the absolution that the priest offers “as out of Christ’s own word and power, by the ministry of the keys.”
Although Hooker speaks of “these inconveniences, which the world hath by experience observed” (LEP VI, 4.15), he emphasises how a “speciall caution” encouraging sacramental confession was given “for the admonition of such as come to the holy Sacrament, and for the comfort of such as are readie to depart the World.”
Alongside this, he clearly envisages a wider pastoral role for sacramental confession:
It hath pleased Almightie God in tender commiseration over these imbecilities of men, to ordeine for their spirituall and ghostly comfort, consecrated persons, which by sentence of power and authoritie given from above, may as it were out of his verie mouth ascertaine timorous and doubtfull minds in their owne particular, ease them of all their scrupulosities, leave them settled in peace and satisfyed touching the mercie of God towards them. To use the benefitt of his helpe for our better satisfaction in such cases, is soe naturall, that it can bee forbidden noe man: butt yet not soe necessarie, that all men should bee in case to neede it (LEP, VI, 6.18).
5, Sin and Confession in Anglican theology and practice today:
As with so many other aspects of Anglican theology, the key to understanding Confession is scriptural and patristic. Scripture gives no requirement for private Confession, nor does the Church. Yet Scripture does offer a ministry of Absolution, carried out by the apostles and their successors, and so the Church must provide for this ministry, which includes, for example, the General Confession during the Eucharist. But, as the Exhortations in the Eucharist make clear, there are times when a General Confession simply is not enough to quiet the conscience. Moreover, all Christians are entitled to the grace of absolution and the great comfort it provides.
Most Anglicans today are not dogmatic about attributing all evil to the Fall of Adam and Eve. The story of Eden can also be interpreted to describe the competing choices that confront us all. Indeed, many Anglicans use the world ‘evil’ to categorise those actions that destroy the creatures of God. The capacity to do good or evil is part of our human nature.
In the Church of Ireland, candidates for Baptism are told that to “follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.” They are asked: “Do you renounce the devil and all proud rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?”
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of ‘evil’ and many images of the devil put the blame on Satan or other outside evil forces, allowing us to evade our responsibility for our own actions.
Scripture is a guiding light, but in places Scriptures suggest that Christ died for all while in other places suggests that only an elect few will be saved. Christian Tradition helps us to interpret Scripture, but traditions have changed over the centuries and some traditions conflict with others. We try to make sense of these complications through the use of Reason, which is enhanced by our experiences as we live our faith.
There is an Anglican aphorism about the confession of one’s sins to a priest: “All may, some should, none must.”
Private Confession has an honourable heritage, both in the Church at large throughout her history and in Anglicanism. In an age in which many people have lost a sense of what a sin is, and where more and more Christians are brought to despair by worry over whether or not their repentance is genuine, it is with gratitude that we may receive this ministry delivered by Christ through his Church to remove the burdens from our souls and allow us to walk spotlessly in the light of truth.
I find the thoughts on sin and confession expressed by Samuel Johnson in his last prayer, as he was about to receive Holy Communion for the last time, is not only a classical Anglican appropriation of these approaches, but an appropriate prayer to mediate on during the season of Advent and before receiving Holy Communion:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
I am now, as to human eyes it seems,
about to commemorate, for the last time,
the death of your Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer.
Grant, O Lord,
that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and his mercy;
enforce and accept my imperfect repentance;
make this commemoration confirm my faith,
establish my hope and enlarge my charity,
and make the death of your Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption.
Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offences.
Bless my friends, have mercy upon all.
Support me, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
in the days of weakness and at the hour of death;
and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness,
for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
6, Sin in the Eastern Orthodox Church
The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply:
Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me the sinner.
The Jesus Prayer is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity.
In a lecture at the annual summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I was reminded by Father Alexander Tefft last year  of how Saint Antony Great is said in the Philokalia to have written: “to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying the sun hides itself from the blind” (Philokalia vol 1, chapter 150).
Father Alexander opened his lecture on ‘Angels and the Last Judgement’ by quoting from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (Act 1):
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be:
And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not Heaven.
Come, I think hell’s a fable.
Orthodox Christianity puts less emphasis on justification than Roman Catholics, Anglicans or Protestants, subsuming it within other words such as θέωσις (theosis) or “sanctification” – so that justification often has no separate treatment in Orthodox theology.
For most Orthodox theologians, the Greek term for justification (δικαίωσις, dikaiōsis) cannot be reduced simply to being pardoned for my sins. The Orthodox Church sees humanity as inheriting the disease of sin from Adam, but not his guilt. So, in this way, there is no need in Orthodox theology for any forensic understanding of justification.
The Orthodox see salvation as a process of θέωσις (theosis), in which the individual is united to Christ and the life of Christ is reproduced within him. Thus, in one sense, justification is an aspect of θέωσις (theosis).
However, it is also the case that all of us who are baptised into the Church and experience Chrismation are considered to be cleansed of sin. Can the Orthodox concept of justification be reconciled or agree with Anglican, Roman Catholic or Protestant concepts?
7, Some personal reflections:
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 to 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 icon or image of 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, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, 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 is 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 the 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.
(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared in advance of recoding a ‘Spirit Level’ programme with RTÉ television.