Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

On this Holy Saturday, the final day of Lent, let our faith be made stronger; let us be more assured that sin and death are conquered; let us know a little more of the light through the sometimes impenetrable shadows. Whether the Harrowing of Hell is literal or figurative, corporeal or spiritual, it has a message for all of us today: the highest response to evil is to free people from it. Let us rejoice that our Redeemer lives.*  Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Holy Saturday is a catch-your-breath day between Maundy Thursday-Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. The morning of Holy Saturday is usually devoted to flower and Easter lily arrangements, polishing the pews, candlesticks, and Eucharistic vessels. With those tasks done, the church building is left pretty much alone for the rest of the day – at least until the Vigil service, which can be anywhere from late afternoon to after nightfall. I have also seen it done before Sunrise on Easter morning, with significant effect. 

In the Apostle’s Creed, we recite, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In Jewish teaching, burial in a grave was the body’s resting place. Sheol, however, was where the soul rested after death, whether the person was good or evil. Different groups of Jews differ in their concept of heaven, hell, hades, Sheol, Gehenna, etc. 

As Archbishop Cranmer said, we don’t know whether the Harrowing of Hell is real, literal, corporal, spiritual, or figurative. What matters is that where there is evil, it is our job to set people free from it. Jesus did that with his resurrection, and we must try to do it before we pass into whatever God has planned for us. 

Still, we have the words of the Creed that tell us that Jesus descended into hell or to the dead. Some believe that Jesus rescued pious and obedient people like the Patriarchs and prophets who had died before the birth of Jesus. That would make sense when pondering the second coming and the judgment to come then. I guess that to know for sure, we will have to wait.

Meanwhile, we prepare for the joy and triumph that is Easter. It’s more than an explosion of flowers, new clothes and hats, baskets of candy, and hidden colored eggs. Jesus conquered death and promised the same for us.

Now that’s reason to rejoice. 

Happy Easter. Christos Anesti!

Image: Hosios Loukas (narthex) – East_wall, right (Harrowing of Hell), Anonymous. 11th century. Found at Wikimedia Commons. The figures are Adam and Eve and David and Solomon.

*Holy Saturday, found at https://www.searchquotes.com/quotes/about/Holy_Saturday/#ixzz7UQU0fUkbv

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.

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