The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190
The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v


7 thoughts on “The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014”

  1. When I lived on Crete, the Holy Saturday morning service was a welcome respite after the torments of Friday. In it’s stately removal of the black drapes of mourning, preparing the church for the Resurrection to come, we were reminded that in the midst of death, life continues. Outside the convents, after the service, the villagers are busy. Easter IS coming and everything must be ready. But those short quiet moments that tell us death has not won, cannot win, are some of the most treasured memories of my years there.
    May your Easter be blessed and joyous, Sister Catherine.

  2. You are quite right about Holy Saturday. And if the ancient belief of the Harrowing of Hell is right than that’s even more hope for the rest of us.

    I find after the excitement of Holy Week that the atmosphere of quiet on Holy Saturday is good for the spirit. Will be going for a longish walk a bit later to see nature bursting out with new life – a precursor for what we anticipate for tomorrow.

  3. It feels as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for the Resurrection of the Creator. Thank you Sister for your gentle guidance through Lent. God bless you all.

  4. The Apostles creed does speak of Christ descending into hell: This is a day of deep mystery. If you have the eyes of faith, the harrowing of hell does imply a deep spiritual torment for Christ’s soul beyond physical death, but wonderful relief for those in unimaginable torment. One can only contemplate the depth of Gods love and wonder at a plan of salvation beyond our comprehension.

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