Saturday, 15 April 2017

In the Harrowing of Hell, Christ reaches down
and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory

The Harrowing of Hell … a traditional Orthodox icon

Patrick Comerford

Giorgios Koros (1923-2014), who died recently, was one of the finest Greek solo violinists of our time. He was born on the island of Evia in Greece. He started playing the violin at the age of eight, when his father – who was a church cantor and a teacher of Byzantine music – decided to replace the mandolin with a violin and a bow without strings.

His professional career began a year later, when he began playing at weddings and feasts with his father, and he began appearing on stage in 1947, collaborating with many famous Greek folk musicians.

His mother spurned the opportunity for him to have a classical musical education. But George Koros later revolutionised Greek folk music through the introduction of the fiddle as an accepted instrument. He became an acclaimed, self-made musician, who has composed about 2,000 songs, and he was awarded many gold and platinum discs for his albums.

But, despite his reputation in Greek folk music, for me he is stands out for his Byzantine hymns. In these hymns, he returns to his roots in Byzantine music and with his violin he recreates the tradition of the early hymns he learned from his father in church as a boy. In one such hymn, he uses his violin to plaintively recall the sorrow of the tomb: I see thy resting place and Life in the Holy Sepulchre.

In the Western tradition of the Church, at this time of the year, we have traditionally contemplated the cross, and then the empty tomb. As the Irish writer and journalist John Waters pointed out recently, 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 on this day.

Holy and Great Saturday is observed solemnly in the Orthodox Church, with hymns and readings that truly explore the theme of the Harrowing of Hell in depth. For this Saturday is the day on which Christ’s body lay in the tomb, this is the day on which he visited 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 about Christ’s descent into Hell – ‘He descended into Hell.’

The Resurrection … an Easter scene in a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ’s descent into Hell is captured in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. In I Peter 3: 15b to 4: 8, we are told 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.’

In the NRSV, I Peter 4: 6 reads the gospel was ‘proclaimed even to the dead …’ reflecting the original Greek: ‘εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη …’ The New International Version, however, says the Gospel ‘was preached even to those who are now dead …’ But the word ‘now’ is not in the Greek text. It was inserted to rule out the idea that Christ preached to those who were dead when they were preached to, and instead it says that he brought his good news to people who were dead at the time I Peter was written. If you remove the word ‘now,’ the English becomes ambiguous on that point, just like the Greek is ambiguous there.

The women at the tomb … a stained glass window in Saint Ann’s Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Orthodox icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of hell. Sometimes, two angels are shown 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. Jesus 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 entombed 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 Jesus’ 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 that Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of hell, and only stayed in the top levels. She finds untenable his view 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 claims, Christ descends only to the ‘limbo of the Fathers’ in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament awaited the coming of the Messiah.

Her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into hell and experience the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death.

The Empty Tomb … a fresco in Saint John’s monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.’

I ask myself: what’s the difference between the top levels and bottom levels of hell? Is my hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and 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 your heart and your soul – where darkness prevails, and where you feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even you are afraid to think about let alone contemplate, may be beyond your reach. You cannot produce or manufacture your own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from yourself.

Christ breaks down the gates of Hell, and as the icon powerfully shows, he rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God; and by plumbing the depths of hell he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light. If hell is where God is not, and Jesus is God, then 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. When we remember Christ lying in the grave, we can 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.

The Harrowing of Hell in a fresco behind the icon screen in the Chapel of the Resurrection in Saint John’s monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is a lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and Canon Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

This paper was published in ‘Koinonia’ (Kansas City MO) vol 10 no 33 (Easter 2017), pp 10-13.

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