The Good News of Holy Saturday… and the “Harrowing/Storming of Hell”


Gustave Dore, Veil of Tears (c. 1883)

Surveying all the Gospel texts about/for Easter,
one verse stands out above all the others
for me this year.

John 20:19 begins:
“On the evening of that first day of the week,
the disciples were together,
with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders…”

“with the doors locked… for fear”

The image, the feel of a tomb comes to mind.
More precisely, a hell of sorts:

    • darkness and shadows – the heart jumping at every sound
    • disorientation
    • trapped, locked up
    • suffocating heat
    • feeling alienated from God, from others, from self
    • a sense of being eaten away from the inside out

It’s a phrase, it’s an image
that resonates with my soul at this time –
perhaps like never before.
I suspect it resonates with many.
The fear.
The sense of being locked up.
Wondering if and when life will ever return to normal.

The image seated,
the second half of the verse kicks in:
“Jesus came and stood among them
and said, ‘Peace be with you!’” 

Jesus descends into their hell!
He breathes a breath of fresh air and peace.
It’s as if the doors and windows
of the prison have been blown open!

There’s an oft-neglected, obscure phrase
in the Traditional Version of the Apostle’s Creed –
so belittled that it’s but a footnote
in the United Methodist Hymnal:
“He descended into hell.”

I had a 12-step friend
for whom “holy Saturday”
and Jesus’ descent into hell
are the key foci in his observation
of Holy Week–
every bit as important to him as
Good Friday with its cross, and
Easter Sunday and its empty tomb.
Maybe you’ve got to be an alcoholic
on the verge of losing everything
to really appreciate Jesus going to hell?

Or maybe, just maybe,
it’s something we can embrace
more fully– in our various quarantines…
robbed of some of freedoms and joys
we’ve taken for granted…
forced to remember
how unpredictable and frail and fragile life is…
stripped a little of the delusion that we are in control
(the masters of our fate).

Has me wondering and hoping
(in spite of the fact that
we can’t physically go to church),
that, maybe, we are in the best [spiritual-emotional] position
to celebrate Easter this year–
recalling the Jesus who broke out of His tomb,
welcoming the Christ who breaks into ours, even today!

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