Harrowing the Hades Within: A Reflection for Holy Saturday 2023

Over the past decade or so, Holy Saturday has become one of my favorite parts of Holy Week. In a world of twenty-four-hour news cycles, constant change, and consistent demands to do more with less, Holy Saturday offers a beautiful opportunity to pause. Even though it’s a day when on the surface, nothing is happening, it’s so rich in meaning. Over the past three years here, I’ve reflected on Holy Saturday on the need to grieve, on the importance of rest, and on the possibility for new life. (And if any of those themes jump out to you, today, I encourage you to pop over to those reflections.) Today what strikes me is the sense that it’s these times of rest, when nothing seems to be happening, that are often paradoxically the most fruitful, the times when the most is happening behind the scenes.

I’ve reflected on this idea before, thinking about Winter and how it only looks like it’s a season of death, but is really a season when nature is preparing itself to be reborn. And that analogy works well today too; in this way Holy Saturday is the late Winter of the liturgical year. This sense of a calm surface with much happening in the depths comes out theologically in the day’s double themes: God’s Sabbath rest, which is simultaneously the Harrowing of Hades. This latter theme is not explicitly taught in the New Testament, but is hinted at in a few places, most notably in 1 Peter 3.19: “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.” Most of us know of it primarily from a line in the creed (”He descended to the dead,” formerly “…into Hell;” the new translation is far more accurate) and from the icon for Easter. The icon, which to my mind is the best piece of theological art ever conceived in the Christian tradition, features Christ lifting Adam and Eve out from behind death’s smashed doors. It’s a stunning visualization of what Christians believe Christ’s death to be all about. In descending to Hades or Sheol, the abode of the dead, God has filled death with life, destroying its power and freeing the dead to new life. We might say that the Harrowing of Hades turns death from a period (.) into an ellipsis (…). It’s no longer the end of the story but a beginning of something we can’t begin to fathom. As the great late-fourth-century orator St. John Chrysostom put it:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the powers are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen. (Paschal Oration)

As important as this doctrine has been for Christian theology, my thoughts today are more symbolically and spiritually or psychologically inclined. For it seems to me that Holy Saturday offers us an opportunity to harrow our own personal Hades within.

Life is hard. Between the idiosyncrasies of how we were parented, the conventions and demands of the communities in which we were raised, and the ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) setbacks all of us face in life, there is much within us that has died a premature death. We all contain an interior Sheol littered with dead hopes and disappointed dreams, unused talents and aspects of personality we’ve not allowed to live. But God is always calling us back to life. The Spirit of Christ descends into our depth and breaks the bars of what’s been imprisoned, allowing it all to be freed and come to light. As the Apostle Paul said, in my favorite tautology ever: “It is for freedom that he has set us free (Galatians 5.1). Applying the spirit of the Harrowing of Hades to our own life asks us to ponder what inside of us needs to be freed. What deserves a second chance at life? What I’m talking about is a kind of Shadow work. We often think about Shadow as things about us that are bad that we can’t see, and this is really true. But, for C.G. Jung, who popularized the concept, it was just as much — if not more — about the good parts of us that we’ve shut away for one reason or another (normally due to the expectation to conform and people-please). As Christians, we believe that it is Christ living within us, and the Holy Spirit working within us, who make bringing these dead parts of ourselves back to life possible.

It’s a bit like what I wrote about yesterday: To identify with our persona, the mask we wear in public, is a kind of ‘spirituality of glory’ akin to being a ‘Palm Sunday people’. In a similar way, to identify with our victimhood and the ways the world has knocked us down would be akin to being only a ‘Good Friday people.’ But Palm Sunday is a story of half-truths and mistaken identities and Good Friday, while true, is not the end of the story. (It’s not a period (.), but an ellipsis (…).) In order to truly embody being an Easter people (again, I’m speaking psychologically or spiritually today) we need to see what inside us that has been long-dead God wants to live again. And Holy Saturday is a great time to consider this question, as we await the coming of God’s new life tomorrow.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the powers are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

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