But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
–I Peter 3:17-20
“ . . . was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again . . .”
–The Apostles Creed
Since that first Holy Week followers of Christ have wondered where he was from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The verses above, as well as the lines from the Apostles Creed, refer to the understanding that on Saturday Jesus descended into hell to preach to the lost souls. This traditional interpretation, known as the “Harrowing of Hell,” was widely believed in the early church and is still a central tenet of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant churches. However, it has been a source of controversy among scholars for centuries, because it is not mentioned by Jesus himself. In fact, the only Gospel hint about the segment of time between Good Friday and Easter Morning is found in Luke, in Jesus’ words to the thief crucified alongside of him, that “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Yet, there is a sense of beauty and unconditional love in the image of Christ’s care for all souls, even if the “harrowing of hell” is allegory rather than history. The influential theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote: “This is a teaching that is full of hope and assurance for us, that Jesus will come to free us in whatever tribulations we come into in this life. It is also an example to us of Christ’s love – we likewise are to seek out those who are suffering in hell in this life to search them out and help them, because there they cannot help themselves.”
William Stringfellow, a lawyer who dedicated his life to working in the worst neighborhood of Harlem, was also one of the brightest theological minds of the last century. In his 1962 book, A Private and Public Faith, he wrote: “He descended into Hell—That is very cheerful news. There is nothing less than Hell unknown to him. There is nothing that I have known this side of hell that is unfamiliar to him. There is nothing known to me which I am wont to call Hell which he has not already known.”
During this time of our world’s incredible suffering, it seems to me that the most crucial understanding is that Jesus endured and empathizes with our pain. Consequently, my own perspective about that Saturday is one that doesn’t try to answer the question of where Jesus was. My attention is on the disciples who had gathered in the Upper Room. They must have been so distraught that their sorrow was almost unbearable. There was the grief of losing Jesus, but there was also the grief over their own sense of betrayal or neglect, “If only I had said. . . If only I had done…” It must have been a time and place of quiet sobs and agonized laments.
In settings in funeral homes, hospital rooms, and other places of suffering I’m sometimes asked, “Where is God in all of this?” Usually, I respond with something brief and simple, but what I honestly believe, “As much as you love ______, God loves them even more.” I was taught that by my mother’s example in word and deed. In her latter years, whenever I or any of my siblings would depart, we would say, “I love you, Mom.” And her immediate response was always, “I love you more.” Near the end of her life, when she was fading and could no longer speak, I spent some time with her, telling her how much she had meant to me. As I was getting ready to leave I leaned over and said, “I love you,” to which she batted her eyes as if to communicate. I knew what she meant. I said it, “And you want me to know that you love me more.” She mustered a smile and nodded. And so does God, even on silent, lonely Saturdays.
I’m a fan of Garth Brooks, the larger-than-life country-music star. One of the things that has caused me to respect him is that he took six years away from his musical career when he was at the very top. Why? So that he could be there as a dad for his three daughters. He did, and judging by their relationship years later, he did rather well. (FYI, one of the girls is studying for the ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School.) In one of his songs, “If Tomorrow Never Comes” he gives us important advice for the dark Saturdays of our lives,
So tell that someone that you love
Just what you’re thinking of
If tomorrow never comes
So, on this dark Saturday, tell someone that you love just what you’re thinking of . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- We will all be touched by grief in some way during this time. Think of someone who has recently lost a loved one, perhaps a family member, a friend, or a mentor. Pray for them.
- Can you remember a time when you acutely felt the regret of not having said something that was on your heart? Can you remedy that with a phone call or note? If not, can you give that over to God?
- Is there someone in our community who especially needs encouragement and support right now? Envision them in your mind and heart, and offer a prayer on their behalf.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: W.S Merwin’s “Separation” & W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.