Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Harrowing of Hell

Here's my homily for the Great Vigil this evening. I'd started doing something completely different, and discovered last night that it wasn't working, so this version got written in a rush this morning. To my immense relief, Gary loves it, although he's not even remotely religious.

The Great Vigil is absolutely gorgeous, the most beautiful and mysterious service of the year, as far as I'm concerned. If you've never been to one, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Part of my writer's block on this was the fact that a few years ago, I preached a homily at the Great Vigil that had much of the congregation in tears, and I was trying to hold myself to that standard -- and freezing up, of course. I'll probably post that older homily tomorrow, just for the sake of completeness.

The Gospel is Luke 24:1-10, not that it particularly matters in this case.

May all of you have a blessed Easter!


On this, the most beautiful and terrifying night of the church year, we have come together with all who witness Christ’s resurrection. Like the women at the tomb, we tremble at what we do not understand, but find ourselves comforted. Like the apostles who scattered after Jesus’ arrest, we flee from God in our moments of hopelessness, but find ourselves greeted by the risen Christ, who breaks bread with us and claims us as his own. Like the two messengers in their dazzling garments, we find ourselves charged with the task of proclaiming to the world that Christ is risen, even when those to whom we speak run from us.

For on this most blessed of nights, there is nowhere we can run and not encounter God. The tomb is empty, but Christ has risen from even deeper depths. The Easter Vigil is the church’s most ancient liturgy, and tonight we bow before the mystery of one of its most ancient doctrines: that when he died, Christ descended to hell and freed the souls imprisoned there.

The Harrowing of Hell was a favorite theme of medieval art and drama, and surely we can see why. In contrast to the scandal of the cross, where Jesus refused to save himself, the Harrowing of Hell gives us an energetic savior: Jesus as superhero in the greatest prison-break drama ever written. If Mel Gibson turned this story into a film, Jesus would surely be played by Daniel Craig or Vin Diesel. There would be thundering music and lots of special effects. Things would blow up, and Jesus, muscles bulging under his spandex superhero costume, would emerge in a blaze of light, triumphantly leading a train of former captives.

And what would Hell look like, in this movie? Some sort of industrial wasteland, most likely, the air blighted by smokestacks belching toxic fumes, the ground pocked by bubbling pools of green sewage. Think of Mordor in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings. Think of Chernobyl. Think of the grimmer stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike. If you’ve read Dante’s Inferno, you know that the tradition of Hell as environmental supersite is very old, although not as old as the tradition of Christ’s descent into Hell. Dante, among other people, locates Hell elsewhere: somewhere we have to travel to reach, somewhere we fervently pray we will never see. None of us would willingly go there for a visit, much less to live, but luckily, we can avoid this place if we love God and follow Christ, as we are commanded to do.

But if discipleship means following Christ, aren’t we also called to follow him into Hell, to free the captives there? If so, how do we go about booking our tickets to this least appealing of tourist destinations?

The medieval world located Hell Elsewhere. But against Dante’s view, we can set Milton’s. In Paradise Lost, Satan escapes from the geographical confines of Hell, only to discover, in one of his most famous speeches, that he has not really escaped at all: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” The line quotes Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus; more indirectly, it echoes the Gospel. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus says. Surely Hell is within us as well.

All of us have spent time there. Hell is the place where we are loneliest, most hurt, most hopeless. Hell is the place from which we cannot even imagine being rescued, because we cannot imagine anyone wanting, or being able, to reach us. Hell is the place where our fear overwhelms our faith, where our pain overwhelms our praise, where the darkness overwhelms the light, seemingly forever. Jesus harrows this hell, too, today and every day, although he rarely resembles a superhero in spandex. Hell is where we feel farthest from God, but there is nowhere God cannot reach. Christ is everywhere.

Many of us have times of the year, often coinciding with painful anniversaries, that are particularly hellish. For many years, the weeks surrounding the spring equinox were a time like that for me. This was when I was most tired and least resilient, when pain struck out of nowhere: scathing hate mail from people I had considered close friends, the agonizing and guilt-inducing death of beloved pets, humiliating episodes at work where I found myself being publically upbraided for things I hadn’t known I was doing wrong. Friends and family pooh-poohed my increasing dread of the spring equinox, dismissing it as superstition or self-fulfilling prophecy. But nothing I did, or didn’t do, succeeded in breaking the pattern.

I started doing research. I learned that in many cultures and faith traditions, the spring equinox corresponds to a descent into the underworld. For Christians, this is the Harrowing of Hell. The fact that the pattern was so universal offered some comfort; I had company. And if I descended into hell every year, at least I always came back up.

Last year, my friend Katharine DeBoer -- whose beautiful voice has blessed our service here tonight -- invited my husband and me to go to Maui with her over spring break in late March. When I told Katharine that I was nervous about the trip because of my long-standing history of awful things happening that week, she assured me that bad luck can’t travel across water.

My research had uncovered Carl Jung’s fascination with the archetypal descent to the underworld, which he calls the night-sea journey. One of the stories that illustrates this archetype, prefiguring Christ’s harrowing of hell, is Jonah’s journey in the belly of the whale. In March, Maui is home to humpback whales who travel there to breed and bear their young.

We went on a whale watch. We had seen a few fins and a few blows
-- definite whale sightings, but not dramatic ones -- when suddenly a tail fifteen feet across came out of the water right in front of us, and then vanished again. Everyone gasped. Our guides explained that the tail appears that way when the whale is diving, descending to the depths.

Back on dry land, I looked for some way to remind myself of that awe-inspiring sight. In a bead store, I found two silver whale-tail charms, which I had made into the earrings I’m wearing tonight. After I had bought the charms, I discovered that on the back of each was etched a tiny cross: a reminder that there is no depth so deep that Christ cannot reach us there.

And that made me remember all the people who had comforted me during my spring crises: friends who told me they loved me when I felt most rejected, veterinarians who sent beautiful hand-written condolence notes, students who assured me of the value of my work. These people stretched out their hands to pull me back into the light. They were Christ for me.

In a fourth-century sermon that is still read in Eastern Orthodox churches every Easter, St. John Chrysostom describes Christ’s harrowing of Hell: “Hell grasped a corpse, and met God. Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven. Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.” I could not see, until I thought to look, that I had risen from hell not through my own power, but through God’s grace, through Christ’s redeeming love.

Christ is everywhere and in everyone, even people who are not wearing spandex. This Easter, let us remember the personal hells that Christ has harrowed, the darknesses from which he has freed us. Let us, following him, bring the light of Christ -- the Morning Star who knows no setting -- to those in other hells: to prisons and hospitals, to homeless shelters and halfway houses, to war zones and our own seemingly peaceful neighborhoods. Let us proclaim, in everything we do and say, the triumph of love and the joyousness of empty tombs.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


  1. Alleluia.

    Can I count on you for the next Ringing of the Bards? Let me know at Carnival post

    If you don't have time to write another ED sonnet (pushy, aren't I? :), the most recent one would be fine.

  2. Anonymous7:15 AM

    Dear Susan,

    Happy Easter! And thank you for the beautiful sermon which, whatever you think of it yourself, I quite loved. May all your springs to come be easier in the aftermath of Maui and the whale watch,


  3. Hi, Tiel! Push away: that helps me get the work done, since it assures me that there are people who want to read it! (Uh, what's the deadline?)

    And Jean, thank you very much. So far, this spring has indeed been easier; I hope that continues! (Last year there was another crisis after we got back from Maui.) Happy Easter to you, too!

  4. Happy Easter, Susan! Lovely homily!

    Last year the entire season was meaning filled and events on the church campus kept me busy. This year I'm so involved with other things that I am only sensing the season in bits and pieces. The sermon at early service was thought provoking. It seems a time for reflection. That usually precedes new growth. May your season be filled with growth and newness as we move into the period of rejoicing.

    Peace, Hope & Joy!

  5. Indeed, he is risen, and may he live in our hearts each and every day.

  6. Anonymous8:28 PM

    I am sorry you find any part of the New Jersey Turnpike fits your vision of Hell.

    While my immediate reaction would be to unleash a few words about your state of residence, I realize this would run counter to Christ teachings.

    So I will hold my tongue and wish you Happy Easter.

    New Jersey resident and Christian (if you can believe that)

  7. Dear NJ Christian:

    I grew up in Englewood and lived in the tristate area for 36 years before moving to NV -- so I know whereof I speak! There are gorgeous parts of NJ, but I'm sure even you have to admit that the Turnpike around Elizabeth is pretty grotesque.

    Happy Easter to you, too!

  8. Hey Susan-- Deadline is April 14th, carnival goes up on the 15th inshallah...

  9. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You

  10. Thanks for sharing your story, Micky. I'm so glad you're all right now and that you've been delivered from your fear and shame!


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