harrowing of hell
Meditation and Reflection

Holy Saturday: the Harrowing of Hell

Each Easter, those charged with preaching sermons have the opportunity to refresh their understanding of the story. Being human, not all of us do so each and every year. Life, lethargy and limitations intervene, and sometimes inspiration may simply not arrive. But this year, I began to engage with the story from the point of view of ‘taking responsibility’, and it did not take me to where I expected.

We can all begin by drawing on stories of responsibility being accepted or rejected, either from our own experience, or other people’s. There is something admirable about people accepting their failings. I always remember with admiration the rare political resignation of Labour Secretary of State Estelle Morris, who stood down from the education brief, declaring herself “not up the job”. Responsibility accepted has our respect.

More grimly, at the Nuremberg trials, Adolf Hitler’s minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, was the only one of the Nazi hierarchy who pleaded guilty to the horrendous crimes in which he was complicit. At least he took responsibility. Alone of that group’s inner circle, he was spared execution.

Holy Saturday arrives in sombre quietness. The sadness and lonely prayer of Maundy Thursday gave way to the drama and horror of Good Friday, but after Jesus’ body has been taken down from the cross and hastily prepared for burial, the Saturday will have found Jesus followers fearful, distraught and trying to make sense of all the confusion of the past week, from the triumphant excitement of Palm Sunday to the emptiness of the post-death quietness. ‘Where does this leave us?’ is the unanswered question.

Today, the reflection on the Easter story may lead us through many layers of the human experience. We may look back on the volatility of the crowd or the cynicism of the Jewish leaders who think it better for one man to be sacrificed for the good of the many. We may contemplate the hubris of Peter who will never abandon his friend, and perhaps contrast his bluster with the quiet strength of the women who stood steadfast and bore witness.

This year, my mind has focused on how much buck-passing has been going on. High Priest Caiaphas was keen to get rid of this impious challenger to tradition and the hierarchy. The Sanhedrin, which Caiaphas led, similarly wanted the disrespectful disturber of the peace to be gone. Like us today, they longed for a return of ‘normality’, with all its imperfections. They thought somebody should do something, just so long as it wasn’t them.

The buck ought to have stopped with Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman Governor and controlled the military. Doubtless they could suppress the troublesome Jews if they turned nasty in defence of their Messiah on a donkey, but it would cost him politically if he had to do so. Yet the injustice of what he was being asked to do plainly troubled him. Like Albert Speer, he was part of a gross regime but had some conscience, however imperfectly expressed or suppressed. So he also improbably tries to avoid taking responsibility by passing the buck to the crowd.

Even the mockery of the execution party has an element of self-exculpation about it. If only Jesus would be more assertive as befits a king, maybe they would stop. It is his very passivity that provokes their excesses to greater cruelty, adding humiliation to the tragedy. He is to be spared nothing in this degrading process, but it’s his own ‘fault’; he does nothing to help himself. He goes like a lamb to the slaughter.

Yet some do accept responsibility. The crowd takes up the cry to free Barabbas. If Pilate will not make a decision, they will, and they boldly assert that the consequences will be on their shoulders and that of their children. They do not realise that history will take them at their word, and that for two millennia others who knowingly or not reject the saving grace and forgiveness of Christ will enact similar dreadful injustices upon their descendants repeatedly, culminating in the Holocaust.

Speer joined countless others down the ages in looking away whilst yet another crowd rejected the innocent and discarded their own God-given humanity, along with that of those they persecute.

If it does not ultimately end well for the crowd and its descendants, Judas suffers immediate regret, trying to hand back the blood money he received. But even that it rejected. Those who engineered what they knew was a miscarriage of justice do not want the taint of the coinage to linger with them or their heritage.

For my purposes, I flag up three aspects of the details which wrap up the biblical story of Judas. He accepts the responsibility for his actions: he self-judges and self-executes, and does so in the ultimate misreading of Jesus’ significance. Had he put his trust in his erstwhile master, he might have seen that forgiveness and redemption was available for him too – even at this stage. Judas’ repentance for his betrayal appears no less real than Peter’s.

In the room of the Last Supper, Jesus is recorded by Matthew and Mark as saying that it might be better had his betrayer not been born. But whose judgment was that upon him? Was it that of Jesus or of Judas himself who has taken sole command of his destiny and thereby abandoned his God?

Jesus appears to forgive all his detractors and betrayers on the Cross: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.‘ It is surely not limited to his executioners. This, of course, includes Peter, his most trusted follower who denied him not once but thrice. The difference is that Peter does not take his destiny into his own hands: Judas’ ultimate rejection of Jesus is that he does just that.

Had Judas waited, he might have been saved in this world. Yet there is a rather attractive tradition that on Holy Saturday Jesus descends to hell in a rescue mission for those who perished before his glory was revealed. It is rejected by some as not explicitly biblical enough, but is well enough attested in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and lives in the creeds and in religious art as one of the permitted subjects of iconography. Within the wider traditional portrayals of the harrowing of hell, there is even one that has Jesus going in search of Judas, the lost sheep, without whom the story could not be. Judas may take responsibility, but cannot take himself beyond Jesus’ redemptive love or power.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and do good to those that harm us. His pursuit of Judas through hell is certainly congruent with that. We do not know either way for the present: perhaps our view on this will say something more about us than about Jesus.

On final observation on Judas. He meets his earthly end and is buried in what becomes known as the ‘Potters Field’. There is a symbolic symmetry in this. In Genesis, God creates mankind for His purposes from the clay of the earth, and when mankind wrests his own destiny from God’s hands, it is to that very earth that he returns. The tradition of the Harrowing of Hell may not be as clear as some might like, but it is rooted in one of the deepest truths of the Bible: God, who raised both Lazarus and Jesus from the dead, has the redemptive power to raise even Judas and all other betrayers and detractors. That all-encompassing love, forgiveness and compassion includes you, and, God willing, it might just include me.

On Holy Saturday when everything is latent, I offer the shortest of modern creeds to those who judge themselves harshly:

God is.
He is as He is in Jesus Christ.
So there is hope.