|The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in the Petites Heures
de Jean de Berry, 14th c. illuminated
manuscript commissioned by
John, Duke of Berry.
LECTIONARY PASSAGE: 1 Peter 3: 18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
The faith communities to which this was written did not have it easy. They were the outsiders–shunned, unaccepted, separated from the only society that they knew. To put it bluntly, they were living in hell. So this comes as a reminder that what they are experiencing now is not permanent. It is not the final word. New life is just over the horizon. For the writer of this epistle, this is a sure promise, made real through our baptism. Baptism here is depicted a recreation, as resurrection. The whole point is that believers do not need to fear the difficulties and sufferings that are present now. God has indeed promised something new. In all honesty, I don’t think this writer necessarily saw baptism as merely a cleansing. Rather, baptism is a claiming. We are claimed by God. We are empowered by the Spirit of Christ. We are made new. So no matter what hell we might find ourselves in, there is more up ahead. God has claimed us. Each of us is a beloved child of God. Our baptism acknowledges that and, like the waters that flooded the earth, sweeps us into new life.
In fact, even the powers of hell cannot impede the recreation that is happening all around us. Now our church chooses to recite the more sanitized version of the Apostles’ Creed but there is an older version that dates back to the 5th century that goes like this: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.” That last sentence is believed to have been loosely taken from this passage. We read that Jesus proclaimed even to the “spirits in prison”. In other words, Jesus descended into hell, into the bowels and depths of life. And, there, he blew the gates open and the eternally forsaken escaped, crossing the threshold to new life. In the Middles Ages, it was referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell”. Now, admittedly, there is little basis for this theology but if death hath no sting, why would hell win? (And to be honest, there’s really little basis for the notion of “hell” as we 21st century folks think of it. I think Dante did us no favors. ) If God’s promise extends to all of Creation, then perhaps hell really hath no fury.
Now this is in no way a lessening of the impact or importance of sin. We all know that. We sin. We try not to. But we sin. In fact, most of us are pretty good at creating our own hell. We plunge ourselves into darkness, into separation from God, through fear, or guilt, or shame, and we struggle to claw our way out. But even the powers of sin are no match for the promise before us. That is the whole point of our faith. So, if we believe that, why is it such a stretch to believe that the God of all, the God who loves us, and who has claimed us, could vanquish all the powers that afflict us, that God has vanquished all the powers of hell?
Perhaps this Lenten season of penitence is not so much a call to grovel at the feet of a forgiving God but rather to faithfully follow this God who beckons us home again to begin again. Maybe it truly is the harrowing of whatever hell we find ourselves in. But in order to do that, we have to name our sin and release its power. It’s part of our story. It’s part of what we must tell. And with that, the waters subside and the green earth rises again. Now, I don’t profess to know the whole truth about this hell thing. It’s not an issue for me. But I struggle to reconcile the notion of a place called hell with this God who offers eternal mercy and grace and forgiveness, with this God that wants the Creation to return so badly to where they belong, to enter into a relationship with the Godself–so badly, in fact, that this God would come and walk this earth just to show us the way home. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Hell definitely exists. But perhaps it is our creation, rather than God’s. Perhaps our faith will show us that the gates of hell have already been removed and that all we have to do is walk the way toward life. Let this Lenten Journey be your Journey toward Life.
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,
Grace and Peace on Your Lenten Journey,