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Readings: Job 14:1-14

          Psalm 130

          Gospel of Matthew 27:51-60

          Gospel of Nicodemus IV-VIII


In the sequence of dramatic, even earth-shaking events commemorated in Holy Week, Holy Saturday seems to form not so much a darkness before the dawn as a calm before the storm. As if we had spent our religious energies in the observation of Maundy Thursday's eucharist and Good Friday's mourning, and now we must pause to gather strength for the Easter celebration to come.

It is as if someone hit the brakes, and the forward momentum of Holy Week toward Easter has been suspended, a dramatic suspension, to be sure, one needful for Easter to have some due tension to resolve. Holy Saturday is somewhat of a pause. I think, in fact, of that passage in the Apocalypse, used to such effect by Bergman in The Seventh Seal: "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven for the space of about half an hour.

But that silence on Holy Saturday can also be compared to a lapse in conversation: sometimes we are uncomfortable with such silences, and we feel we must say something, no matter how banal, no matter how inane, to fill them. Like nature, nervous chatter abhors a vacuum.

And it did not take the early church long to fill in the silence of Holy Saturday. I will admit that what they filled it in with is a piece of strange mythology. But even so, it has something to teach us. The myth in question is that of the "harrowing of Hell," and you just heard the classical formulation of it from the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus. Let me tell you a bit about that legend and how it developed.

I believe the idea of Christ's mission to the Netherworld between Good Friday and Easter Sunday stems from two roots. First, from ancient Gnostic Christianity came the notion that the descent of the Redeemer to earth was less a coming to the planet's bright surface from outer space than a submersion into the dark depths of the murky world of sin. Christ needed less a space suit for the trip, so to speak, than a diving suit. The descent into this world was itself a descent into Hell, so dim a view did the Gnostics take of the world.

Second, we read in 1 Peter 3:18-19 that Christ, once he was raised from the dead in the spirit, went to the holding pens where the lost souls of past ages were kept awaiting the judgment, to proclaim his triumph, or perhaps to offer them another chance at salvation, we don't know. As time went by, elements of these two myths were combined.  It came to be believed that Christ rose not in the spirit, but in the flesh, a conception that made it a bit difficult to fit in with journeying to unseen spirit-prisons in other dimensions. And since Christians didn't take quite so dim a view of the material world as the Gnostics did, the descent language came to refer to Christ coming to earth and then going deeper -- into the bowels of Hell itself! Now we have reached the fourth century, and with it, our text.

In the Gospel of Nicodemus and in ancient belief generally, it was supposed that Holy Saturday was placid and calm on the surface only. Had you been able to see it, you would have seen, quite literally, all Hell breaking loose! For on that day the mighty Christ assaulted the adamantine gates of Hell with all the warlike fury of the ancient God Yahweh. Like a modern Special Forces Unit, he stormed the enemy encampment and freed the innocent hostages who had languished for what seemed, and what were, futile centuries. Freed from the Devil's sentences to the Wheel, the Rack, the ever-receding food and water, the boulder to be pushed uphill, the old saints, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Adam, Abel, Moses, faces one and all close to forgotten even by their God, were now aglow with new hope, with incredulous joy, like the occasional hostage released by the terrorists in Lebanon.

You and I live in a day, in a culture, where it is almost as hard to believe in Hell as it is to believe in Heaven! What can this quaint story mean for us? Bultmann was right, as usual, when he  maintained that every single theological statement is at the same time an anthropological statement. Every myth about the gods and the demons and their doings is at bottom a story about human existence in the world, its dangers and its possibilities. And while I doubt Bultmann would have touched our story with a ten foot form-critical pole, I think we can demythologize it as he taught us, and with great profit. What is the meaning, our meaning of the myth of the harrowing of hell?

It is the truth of depression and despair, the truth of fallow periods in the process of spiritual growth, to wit:  There are special moments, more likely seasons, of doubt and despair when we may feel that God has abandoned us. We may feel truly as bereft, our world destroyed, as the eleven disciples felt on the day before Easter.

In a sense, to view Easter as the solution to times like these is a delusion and a false comfort. If there is truly nothing but the passage of time between the cross and the resurrection, then to expect Easter is to expect the simple negation and reversal of what ails you. But problems are never truly solved that way.

But to pass through Holy Saturday is to know that far down below the surface, with great rumblings too deep for you to hear, there is a great work of healing and saving, or redemption and release, going on. Down in the abyss of your subconscious perhaps God is working in a way deeper than he ever could in your conscious mind. How often our conscious wrestlings with a problem serve only to further churn the muddy waters and to make a solution seem farther away than ever!

Perhaps in this Holy Saturday of your Christian life when God seems so far away, so unreal, when Christ seems dead indeed, irrevocably dead, perhaps I say, his Spirit is at work below, laying the foundations for greater sanctification, greater Christlikeness that will at length rise from your tomb of darkness.

Perhaps there are parts of your personality that are unknown to you and as unsuspected as the unseen figures of the imprisoned saints in the mythical Hell. And Christ is at work deep down there today, to free those parts of you. Do not grow weary, but endure to the appointed end, and you will behold Hell's Harvest of captives unbound and restored to the land of the living.




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