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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Harrowing Hell: the significance of Easter Eve

It's not Easter Saturday but Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. This day between Good Friday and Easter is unique. No other day feels quite like this, a day of emptiness, of waiting, of hoping.

For the Jewish community, it's the Sabbath or seventh day of the week (and this year, it's also the first day of Passover). That's an important clue to what it means. In the Genesis creation story, God finished his work on the sixth day and rested on the seventh. St John's account of the crucifixion picks up this theme when he has Jesus speak his last word from the cross, 'It is finished'. He has accomplished the new work of creation. Tetelestai! - it is complete. So Jesus can now be laid in the tomb. He can rest. He can keep the Sabbath.

Early next morning, the first day of the week, the tomb is empty. Jesus is up before daybreak. He appears to Mary in the garden. We hear the echoes of the creation story again, the garden of Eden where God places the man and the woman to look after the world that he is making. But now there is a new world. Life is beginning again on this eighth day, this first day of the rest of history. Everything is transfigured. Nothing is the same again after this Sabbath.  

So on this day we are 'between times': between old and new, between past and future, between expectation and fulfilment. Traditionally, Easter Eve is 'a-liturgical', that is, a day when the church doesn't celebrate the liturgy but enters into the mysterious pause between one era and the next. The altars are stripped after Maundy Thursday, the church is forlorn and bare, its songs have fallen silent. It's like Zion as she is depicted in the Book of Lamentations: desolate, abandoned, void. Nothing stirs; nothing happens. This is the Sabbath of the grave.

I'm speaking symbolically, of course, about the lifelessness of Easter Eve. Yet in medieval theology, it was on Holy Saturday that a great drama was acted out in unseen places. When Christ went down to the grave, it was in order to harrow hell and bring redemption to lost souls who had been condemned to die. The new Adam goes to rescue the old. 'He descended into hell' we recite in the creed. Those words aren't easy to say. Some treat them as no more than a colourful way of talking about his death.

But let's use our spiritual imagination here. One way is to say: the cross has not only personal but cosmic significance. Nothing is beyond the reach of God's redemption, and Jesus goes to the far side of all that is dark and dreadful to achieve it. Even the hells of this world are not beyond the scope of God's loving purposes. How could the gospel have a truly universal dimension without the harrowing of hell?

Back here, Easter Eve may be liturgically a day of rest, but it is also a day of preparation. There is work to do after all. Like Jewish people preparing for the Passover, there is a festival to get ready for both at home and in church. In the Cathedral, rehearsals for the great liturgy of Easter dawn take place. The best vestments are being laid out, the golden hangings are placed on the altar, the church is cleaned, and flowers and decorations are being arranged. The Cathedral will never look more beautiful than it does on Easter Day.

So as we pass symbolically through the grave and gate of death, we wait for the celebration of a new dawn. We shall be there, ready to greet him when he comes to us at first light in the breaking of the bread. Our hearts will burn within us as we hear the voice of our Beloved who calls us by name and tells us not to be afraid.

Here is my translation of a familiar Easter hymn.

Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.
Radiant in the morning, angels bright come down,
Greet the day that’s dawning, hail the conqueror’s crown:

Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.

See Jesus meets you, see your Lord appear!
Hear the word that greets you, tells you love is here.
Dance with joy and gladness, people of the Lord.
Banish grief and sadness, tell the news abroad!

Fear flies before him: evermore he lives!
O my heart adore him! peace and joy he gives.
Christ my mighty conqueror, Christ my gracious friend,
Christ my life and glory, till all ages end:

1 comment:

  1. Alas, ITV seems to have more clout than the Dean of Durham and yesterday was definitely advertised by Independent television as being "Easter Saturday". This coming Easter Saturday I very much look forward to travelling North to Durham for a post Easter break, Easter Joy and Blessings to all at Durham cathedra, that great Zion of the North, especially to Michael Sadgove