We arrive now at a strange interlude in the passion drama that many Christians are unaware of because it's not actually mentioned in scripture, only in tradition (including the Apostle's Creed); I became acutely aware of it through my earlier days as a medievalist when I staged several English mystery plays depicting the incident.
While the Bible itself makes no mention of what might have happened during those three days that Jesus lay in the tomb, there is a strong apocryphal tradition that between the time he died on the cross on Good Friday and the time he returned to the flesh on Easter Sunday, he made a visit to hell ("stormed its gates," in some accounts) in order to release the doomed souls there. In the earthy language of the Middle English, this incident was known as the Harrowing of Hell.
The medieval interpretation of this legend is admittedly naïve. This visit solved a theological dilemma – namely, if in order to be saved you had to be a baptized Christian, what happened to all those good people who happened to live on the planet before Christ came? The medieval plays portray Jesus rounding up all those worthy Old Testament patriarchs – Moses with his stone tablets, David complete with harp, and a decidedly craggy Abraham – presumably in order to bring them into the Christian fold.
But setting the medieval naïveté aside, I believe the real meaning of this archetypal legend is entirely serious and deserves our full attention. In a real sense Jesus did indeed visit hell . . . and in confronting the powers and principalities there, he changed the footing on which our present world exists.
Christian theological tradition insists that it was the death of Christ that was the sacramental act, not his resurrection. This surprises many Christians, because it seems that resurrection is the much more obvious place where he exercised his triumph over the powers and principalities. But mystical wisdom has always intuited that the great sacramental fiat was actually accomplished much more quietly and inwardly in those innermost regions of the earth, as the direct outcome of his passage through death.
How could this be? . . .
A huge personal breakthrough in my own understanding of what this Harrowing of Hell mythology really is all about occurred quite unexpectedly in the midst of a discussion I had with a student a few years ago. A tenderhearted soul, she had seen the movie Cold Mountain the night before and had been severely disturbed by the human atrocities portrayed there. After lying awake all night, she arrived at class in a very distressed state and asked, "How could this darkness exist? How can we remove this darkness from this planet?"
"Don't you see," I heard myself saying in response, "that by judging it you only make it worse? By trying to stop the black – to make it all white, all good; by saying that this we can accept and this we must reject, you keep empowering that cycle of polarization that creates the problem in the first place." And I think this has always been the fatal trap in the "God is light" road map, the orientation that cleaves to the light by trying to deny or reject the shadow. It only winds up empowering the shadow and deepening it. The resolution doesn't lie in collapsing the tension of opposites by canceling one of them out. Something has to go deeper, something that can hold them both.
One of the greatest medieval mystics, Jacob Boehme, made the challenging assertion: "God cannot enter hell, but love can enter hell and there redeem it." For many years I had puzzled over the meaning of this statement. But in the very next instant of my exchange with this student, I suddenly understood what Boehme meant and what Jesus was actually up to during that pivotal moment in the passion drama. He was just sitting there – surrounded by the darkest, deepest, most alienated, most constricted states of pained consciousness; sitting, if we can image it, among all those mirroring faces of the collective false self that we encountered earlier in the crucifixion narrative: the anguish of Judas, the indecision of Pilate, the cowardice of Peter, the sanctimony of the Pharisees; sitting there in the midst of all this blackness, not judging, not fixing, just letting it be in love. And in so doing, he was allowing love to go deeper, pressing all the way to the innermost ground out of which the opposites arise and holding that to the light. A quiet, harmonizing love was infiltrating even the deepest places of darkness and blackness, in a way that didn't override them or cancel them, but gently reconnected them to the whole.
A beautiful poem came across m desk a few years ago, written by an anonymous English nun, which precisely captures the flavor of this deeply sacramental moment. Picturing Jesus in the last moments if his human life, she writes:
In stillness nailed.
To hold all time, all change, all circumstance in and
to Love's embrace.
This single vivid image sums up the whole meaning of Jesus' passage through the realms of hell: to hold all the boundary conditions of this realm (time, change, and circumstance) "in and to love's embrace" and in such a way release them from the grip of duality. You can see why Boehme and some of the other most illumined Christian mystics have considered it a cosmic turning point: not because a single human being personally triumphed over the conditions of this world (an attainment attested to in nearly all the great religious traditions), but because he did it in such a way that did not judge or condemn these conditions but, rather, allowed them to be as they were. In that ultimate "letting be," he transformed them into sacred vessels of divine love. This is the mystical meaning of the great Pauline statement (in Colossians 1:17): "In him all things hold together."
. . . [E]vil is very much a function of duality. When I say this, I am not implying that evil is only in our minds. Duality is an objective sphere. To that extent, evil is also an objective force and larger than individual human subjectivity and human conscience. In those deeply hidden hours of Holy Saturday we find Jesus going to the root of that duality, embracing it, sheathing it in a greater love that will hold it firmly in place under the dominion of that love, and in obedience to that love, if we simply allow the kenotic path* to take its course. With that guarantee in place, we can follow where he has gone.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
The Wisdom Jesus
The Wisdom Jesus
* Earlier in her book Bourgeault notes the following about this path:
Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us. There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. That's the kenotic path in a nutshell. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.
NEXT: The Resurrected Jesus
Recommended Off-site Links:
What Did Jesus Do on Holy Saturday? – Daniel Burke (Religion News Service via Huffington Post, April 7, 2012).
Holy Saturday: Not the End of the Pilgrimage, But A Point of Transformation – Philip Lowe, Jr. (Philip's Many Thoughts, April 7, 2012).
Holy Saturday: Let the Memory Live Again – Francis DeBernardo (Bonding 2.0, April 7, 2012).
Where Was Jesus Buried? – Kim Lawton (Religion & Ethics News Weekly via Huffington Post, April 7, 2012)
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Passion of Jesus (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
A Wretched Death, a Wretched Burial
Image 1: Artist unknown.
Image 2: Jean-Jacques Henner.