Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Harrowing of Hell

The Resurrection of Jesus and the Harrowing of Hell
The title of this post is not to scare the your wits but to recall an ancient understanding on what Easter really means. This was conserved by the English Church from its very foundation by Saint Augustine of Canterbury and is now part of the Anglican understanding of the Faith. However in the recent decades especially after the Second Vatican Council, this understanding has been downplayed in the Latin Church and too in the Anglican Church. Fortunately it still is central to Eastern Christianity's belief about Easter as seen most clearly in its icons.   The term "harrowing of hell" comes from the Old English word "hergian" which means to despoil or to snatch. Thus before Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, he descended into hell ("the dead" in modern usage). I am old enough to recall the use of "Hell" in the Creed and I always asked why did Jesus have to go to Hell. He didn't commit any sin, did he?

The English Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1010) used the term "harrowing of hell"in his homilies. Since then a rich tradition has developed about the concept even as it was taught by the early Church fathers. The Eastern Church believes that Jesus snatched Adam and Eve, now forgiven and brought them to Paradise once more. The icon above shows risen Jesus Christ snatching Adam and Eve from the tomb.  This is what the Eastern Church understands about the Resurrection. It is the real snatching of us sinners from Death! The Roman Catholic Church understands this in a slightly different way as said in the Catechism. Christ released the just who preceded him from death and perpetual exclusion from heaven. Many Protestants believe that in Jesus descending to Hell, he broke Satan's power forever.

As for my earlier question about what "hell" means, the meaning has changed in the last 1000 years. The word came from the Norse "hel" which means underneath. Now it means a place for the damned. But whatever the meaning is, Jesus Christ the Risen Lord has triumphed over hell and death.

The pre-Reformation English Church celebrated the "harrowing of hell" in many mystery plays and in the iconography of parish churches. Even the Rood Screen may have a picture of what this means and that is very close to the understanding of the Eastern Church. Sadly the Reformation almost did away with these and in the resulting Calvinist inspired iconoclasm, many representations were lost.

Nonetheless, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer collect for Easter Even or Holy Saturday echoes what the ancient tradition from the East means. In the collect it is prayed that in order to be saved we have to be buried with Him, pass through the grave and the gate of death and rise in our glorious ressurrection, because Jesus rose from the dead!

This understanding is now largely lost to us. We live in a secular world where hell is no longer real since we have lost the meaning of what sin is. And the hells we have made by our works (wars, environmental destruction, injustice, corruption, abortion, disrespect for human life and dignity etc have numbed us. Now will the Risen Jesus snatch as from all of these? How can our Christian faith harrow these hells and release us? The Anglican tradition is a gentle reminder of what is really at stake for our souls. The English Church before and after the Reformation and through the Catholic revival has nurtured many mystics who have dwelt on this reality. The Ordinariates in one sense will restore this understanding to the Roman Catholic Church, as the Eastern Church restores it to the West.

The message of Easter is that Jesus has risen from the dead, destroyed sin and death and shows us the way to eternal life. So death where is thy sting?

A blessed Easter to our readers!

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