Into Hell and Out Again

Scott Cairns, reflecting on Holy Saturday in light of his adopted Eastern Orthodox tradition, describes Jesus’ descent into hell to rescue Adam and Eve and all those who had died before his arrival.

Many of us know the line “he descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed. Interestingly, that line is not found in Scripture, nor was it in the earliest versions of the Creed (“he descended to the dead” is in the earliest texts), but even by the time of Augustine (who himself had a hard time explaining it) the “harrowing of hell” was an established part of the tradition.

I’ll confess that I’m a tab ambivalent about this long standing “addition” to the story of Jesus, as it draws us to a conception of heaven and hell that I am not confident is particularly biblical or helpful and took hold of the Christian imagination most fully in the middle ages, only to dominate our understanding of Jesus’ mission ever since.

Having said that, however, I do like the element of struggle it introduces, that Death and Sin were/are real opponents and forces with which to contend and that Jesus embraces them in his death and wrestles them, in fact, to the death. And I love the closing line of Cairn’s poem when, speaking of Adam and Eve, he imagines that they rise toward heavenly bliss both “eager and a little shocked / to find their bodies capable of this.”

Yes, both eager and a little shocked that redemption is possible. Eager and a little shocked that forgiveness and new life is not beyond us. Eager and a little shocked at what we can do when we surrender to God’s mercy and grace. A good word, I think, on this Holy Saturday that sits between the pain of Good Friday and the joy of Easter morning in eager and awe-filled anticipation.

Into Hell and Out Again

In this Byzantine-inflected icon
of the Resurrection, the murdered Christ
is still in Hell, the chief issue being

that this Resurrection is of our agéd
parents and all their poor relations. We
find Him as we might expect, radiant

in spotless white, standing straight, but leaning
back against the weight of lifting them. Long
tradition has Him standing upon two

crossed boards—the very gates of Hell—and He,
by standing thus, has undone Death by Death,
we say, and saying nearly apprehend.

This all—the lifting of the dead, the death
of Death, His stretching here between two realms—
looks like real work, necessary, not pleasant

but almost matter-of-factly undertaken.
We witness here a little sheepishness
which death has taught both Mom and Dad; they reach

Christ’s proffered hands and everything about
their affect speaks centuries of drowning
in that abysmal crypt. Are they quite awake?

Odd—motionless as they must be in our
tableau outside of Time, we almost see
their hurry. And isn’t that their shame

which falls away? They have yet to enter bliss,
but they rise up, eager and a little shocked
to find their bodies capable of this.

Scott Cairns. from the journal, Image.