Today Is The Harrowing of Hell

Today is the day when Life itself, the spoken Word of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, lay dead in the tomb (12). Today is the day of death, and it's the day of death all day.

Yesterday he suffered under Pontius Pilate. Today he descended into Hades. Today he descended into Hell. Today he went to the Land of the Dead, to the citadel of Satan, and proclaimed the Gospel that opened the cages of the languishing and bound the hands of the chief Devil.
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. ..By the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead. For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:5-6)
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? (Ephesians 4:8-9)
Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them. (Psalm 68:18)
But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) (Romans 10:6-7)
There is Hell and there is Hades, there is Limbo and there is inferos, those below. When we recite the Apostles' Creed, some of us say "Hell", others "Hades". For the differences, including eternal damnation and where the fate of the dead before Jesus, which are important, but over which we here blithely elide, do some Wikipedia surfing.

Suffice to say that while the Christ was dead, the Christ was doing things. And today is the dark day on which we celebrate his dark deeds of light. The Anglo-Saxons called it The Harrowing of Hell, which is the winnowing of Hell, the harrying of hell, the despoliation of Hell. It is the idea that Jesus came to claim his own from the Land of the Dead, where the just and the unjust alike waited in Adam's death and under Satan's thumb, for Jesus to come with the Sword of his Word to proclaim the Gospel of Death to Death.

Thirteen years ago I was in a now-defunct used bookshop with the wonderful name of The Ball and Cross, and I found a copy of The Vision of Piers Plowman, a book which I'd never read before. Up to that point I'd more or less been a Christ-preached-in-Limbo-let's-say-Hades-in-the-Apostles'-Creed kind of guy. After reading Piers Plowman, I became more of a Harrowing of Hell kind of guy.

There's a really fantabulous blog called A Clerk of Oxford. I recommend it to you. The last two years during Holy Week she has put up a couple of excellent posts on the Anglo-Saxon and medieval English conceptions of the Harrowing of Hell, and I'm going to quote at length from a bunch of her translations/renderings into modern English. Y'all, I am sure, are going to dig this.

You can also read the posts in their entirety, of course. ('Open wæs þæt eorðærn': the Harrowing of Hell, and 'The light that leapt out of thee': Piers Plowman and the Harrowing of Hell)

From Piers Plowman:

The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time 
About midday, when most light is, and meal-time of saints - 
Feddest Thou with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness: 
Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
(The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.)
And the light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blente, [blinded]
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.

The following passage is from a debate between Mercy, Truth, Righteousness, and Peace, who famously met in Psalm 85: "Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other." It seems incredible to them that the penalty of death for sin might be lifted by this Jesus.

(This is the the Clerk of Oxford's rendition into modern English.)

"I am amazed by this event, in faith," said Truth, "and have come to find out what that wonder means."

"Marvel not," said Mercy, "it means joy! A maiden called Mary, a mother untouched by any creature of nature, conceived through the words and grace 
of the Holy Ghost, and grew great with child; without stain she brought him into this world. And my tale is true, I take God as my witness, that thirty years have passed since the birth of this child, who died and suffered death this day, about midday - and that is the cause of the eclipse which now conceals the sun, as a sign that mankind shall be drawn out of darkness when this light and this gleaming turns Lucifer blind. Man shall save man with the help of a maiden, and that which was lost through a tree shall be won back through a tree, and that which death brought down, death shall restore."

"What you're saying," said Truth, "is nothing but rubbish! Adam and Eve and Abraham and the others, patriarchs and prophets lying in torment - you shouldn't believe that light can carry them aloft, or take them out of hell! Hold your tongue, Mercy! It's just nonsense you're talking; I, Truth, know what's true. Someone who is once in hell can never leave it again. Job the prophet patriarch proves your words wrong: 'For in hell there is no salvation'."

Then Mercy, very mildly, murmured these words: "From 
experience," she said, "I hope they shall be saved: for poison destroys poison, and that I can prove by reason. Of all venoms the worst is that of the scorpion, and no medicine can heal the place it has stung - until it is dead and placed on the wound. It destroys the injury, the first poisoning, by being the antidote itself. So this death - I lay my life upon it - shall destroy all that death destroyed first through the devil's tempting; and just as man was betrayed by a deceiver's guile, so the grace which all began shall make a good end, and beguile the guiler - and that's a good strategem: 'Art by art betrayed'."

"Now let us be quiet," said Truth, "I see, as it seems to me, out of the nip of the north, not very far from here, Righteousness come running. Let us wait for her, for she knows more than we; she existed before either of us."

"That's true," said Mercy, "and I see here, indeed, where Peace comes playing, clothed in patience. Love has long desired her; I believe Love must have sent her some letter to explain what is the meaning of this light which hovers over hell. She will tell us."

When Peace, clothed in patience, came near the two of them, Righteousness greeted her courteously because of her splendid clothing. She asked Peace to tell her where she was going, and whom she was going to meet in such gay garments. 

"My intention," she said, "is to go and welcome all those whom for many days I have not been able to see because of the darkness of sin - Adam and Eve, and many others in hell, Moses, and many more! Mercy shall sing, and I shall dance to her singing - do so, sister! For Jesus jousted well; joy begins to dawn. 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' Love, my lover, sent me letters to say that my sister Mercy and I shall save mankind, and that God has freely given and granted to me, Peace, and Mercy to be mankind's surety for evermore. Look, here is proof," said Peace, "that this document will always be valid: 'In peace I will sleep and take my rest."

"Are you insane?" said Righteousness, "or are you actually drunk? Do you believe that light can unlock hell and save the souls of mankind? Sister, don't believe it! In the beginning God gave the judgement himself: that Adam and Eve and all who followed them would die straight out and dwell in torment ever after, if they touched a certain tree and ate of the fruit. Adam, after that, against the prohibition, ate of that fruit, and so turned away from the love of God and his law both, and followed what the devil taught and his companion's wishes, against reason. I, Righteousness, declare with Truth that their pain is perpetual and no prayer can help them. So let them chew what they bit off, and let's not argue, sisters - for the mouthful they are eating is suffering without relief."

These sisters know what you and I know, that only he who has clean hands and a pure heart may ascend the holy hill of God. We know that from Psalm 24. Which is the psalm in which the King of Glory comes, and the gates must open to him.

"Quiet!" said Truth, "I can hear and see a spirit speaking to hell, bidding them unbar the gates. A loud voice in the light cries out to Lucifer, 'Princes of this place, unbar and unlock! For here comes crowned he who is king of glory.'"

Then sighed Satan, and said to those in hell, "Such a light as this fetched Lazarus, against our will; care and trouble has come to us all! If this king comes in, he will fetch mankind and take it where Lazarus is, and easily bind me. Patriarchs and prophets have long been talking of this, saying that such a lord and a light should lead them all out of here."

"Listen," said Lucifer, "I know this lord, both this lord and this light - long ago I knew them. This lord cannot be harmed by death or any devil's trickery; and where he will is his way. But let him beware danger! If he takes what's mine by right, he robs me by sheer force, for by right and by reason the people here belong to me, body and soul, both good and wicked."

Again the light commanded them to unlock, and Lucifer answered, "Who is this? What lord are you?" Swiftly the light replied: "The king of glory; the Lord of might and main and all manner of virtues; the Lord of power. Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates at once, that Christ may come in, the King of heaven's Son!" 

And with that breath hell broke open, and Belial's bars; despite any guard or watchman, the gates opened wide. Patriarchs and prophets, the people in darkness, sang St John's song: 'Behold the Lamb of God!' Lucifer could not look, he was so blinded by light. And those whom Our Lord loved he caught up into his light, and said to Satan: 

"Lo, here is my soul to make amends for all sinful souls, to save those who are worthy. Mine they are, and of me, and so I may the better claim them. Although reason and my own justice said that if they ate the apple all should die, I did not condemn them to hell for ever. For the deed which they did was caused by your deceit; with guile you got them, against all reason, for in my palace Paradise, in the shape of a serpent, you falsely seized from me that which I loved... Now your trick begins to turn against you, and my grace grows ever greater and wider. The bitterness you have brewed, now drink it yourself; you who are doctor of death, drink what you made! For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink, and for that drink today I died upon earth. I fought so that I am still thirsting for the sake of mankind's souls. No drink can moisten me or slake my thirst until the vintage comes in the vale of Josaphat, when I will drink new wine from ripened grapes at the resurrection of the dead. And then I shall come as a king, crowned, with angels, and take out of hell all men's souls. Fiends and devils shall stand before me, and be at my bidding as best pleases me. But I will be merciful to mankind then, as my nature demands of me, for we are brethren in blood - although not all in baptism - and all who are my whole brethren, in blood and baptism, shall not be condemned to the death which is without end... Thus by law," said Our Lord, "I will lead from hence the people whom I loved and who believed in my coming. And for the lies, Lucifer, which you told to Eve, you shall pay bitterly!" And he bound him with chains. 

Astroth and all the devils hid themselves in corners; the least of them did not dare look on Our Lord, but let him lead forth as he liked and leave what he pleased. Many hundreds of angels harped and sang, 'Flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned!'

Then Peace piped a note of poetry... "After sharpest showers the sun is brightest, and there is no weather warmer than after watery clouds; love is never dearer, nor friends more precious, than after war and trouble when love and peace reign. There was never war in this world or wickedness so fierce that Love, if he liked, could not turn it to laughter. And Peace, through patience, stopped all perils."

"Truce!" said Truth, "you tell us true, by Jesus! Let us embrace in accord, and kiss each other."

"And let no one," said Peace, "perceive that we argued; for nothing is impossible to Him who is almighty."

"You say the truth," said Righteousness, and reverently kissed Peace, and Peace her, for ever and ever. 'Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.'

Truth blew a trumpet and sang 'Te Deum laudamus', and then Love sang to the lute in a loud song, 'Behold, how good and pleasant it is [for brethren to dwell in unity].'

Until the day dawned these damsels carolled, until the bells began to ring for the Resurrection - and at that moment I awoke, and called Kit my wife and Calote my daughter. "Arise and go reverence God's resurrection, and creep to the cross on your knees and kiss it as a jewel! For it bore God's blessed body for our redemption, and it frightens the fiend - for such is its power that no grisly ghost may glide where its shadow falls."

Today, brothers and sisters, is the day that Jesus the Christ of God conquers death. Not just personally, but all of Death for all of us. He went down with the Sword of his Word and all of his Mercy and Justice and Truth and Peace and made war for us. And he triumphed!

Tomorrow he rises with the new sun into a new world, having conquered, conquering and to conquer, proclaiming his Gospel. And we are his people, the sheep of his pasture, who also go into the light conquering and to conquer. Today is a day of darkness and of victory. Tomorrow is our celebration day.

All my life has been a Saturday. Come quickly, Lord of Sundays.