The second reading from the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday is taken from an ancient homily on Christ’s descent into hell. It begins: “Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.”
Today is Holy Saturday, a day which has long seemed to me rather forlorn and desolate. We reflect on the post-crucifixion Christ, who we tend to picture lying dead in the grave on this day. And this is indeed so, at least as concerns His mortal remains. But since I learned the story of the Harrowing of Hell, this day has seemed a good deal less desolate – rather, fraught with action and promise! For it is on this day, the tradition tells us, that the Harrowing of Hell took place.
The body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word of God, may have been lying in the tomb, but in His Eternal, Divine Nature, he was bursting through the gates of Hell, overthrowing the kingdom of sin and death, and leading captivity itself captive! This is only hinted at in the words of the Apostles Creed – “He descended into Hell” – but how did He descend? Not as a sinner, doomed to perdition, but as the Sinless One, the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, “through Whom all things were made,” as the Nicene Creed states (echoing the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel).
Theologically, this is also known as the “Christus Victor” (“Christ the Victor”) theory of the Atonement, in which Christ is not a mere passive actor, dying – however heroically and compassionately – to “substitute” for our own deaths, as the penalty of sin, but an active agent, achieving the victory over sin and death by entering and overthrowing the kingdom of sin and death itself.
We may never know, in this world (“now I see in a mirror, dimly…”) which of these is a more accurate expression of the reality, or if, as is often the case, both contain elements of truth! But it seems to me that Christus Victor – expressed on this day in the Harrowing of Hell – is more true to the nature of Christ, and of God, as we see it in the Scriptures. At the very least, I think we need to set this alongside the substitutionary theory of the Atonement, and realize that there is much more going on here than Christ dying for our sins as a passive victim.
There are debates, of course, as to the specific “part” of Hell (also known as Sheol, from the Judaic tradition, or Hades, from the Hellenistic) into which Christ descended, and the precise effect of His sojourn there: the linked article expresses the Roman Catholic view. But I prefer to view this account in its broadest possible sense: that no part of Creation (“all that is, visible and invisible” – meaning both material and spiritual – as the Nicene Creed also states) are untouched by the presence and promise of Christ, including those parts most corrupted by sin and death: indeed, Hell itself.
As the ancient Christian homily mentioned in the link puts it,
Out of love for you and for your descendants [Christ says,] I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
Of course, we still have to appropriate that great gift for ourselves! God does not force it on us. If someone gives you a gift, and you leave it on the table, unopened, you’re not going to benefit from that gift, no matter how generous it may be. God can save whomsoever he wishes; his sovereignty is not in doubt. But this is the means by which he has chosen to do so – with Christ, and through Christ, potentially all may come within the reach of God’s saving embrace. At least, we may devoutly hope so! One still has to accept the salvation which is offered, as mentioned above. Yet it is through the voluntary self-sacrifice of God in Christ that salvation is possible at all.
So as we commemorate this solemn day, and contemplate Christ’s self-sacrificial willingness to die for our sakes, let us not grieve over-much. Let us not give in to the feelings of desolation and abandonment that this day can so easily invoke. Let us instead recall that, as in much of salvation history, there is more going on than meets the eye! Thanks be to God for that.