For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3.18-20)
The disciples were forced to rest and to wait. But was Jesus resting? St Peter in his First Letter suggests otherwise, as does the tradition for this Holy Saturday. In the Apostles’ Creed we say that he ‘descended into hell’ and it must have been on this day that all this happened. Like a super-hero Jesus enters the place of our greatest fears, that prison in which humankind had been kept, from which there was no escape and brings those lost in death to life. This is called ‘the harrowing of hell’. It’s an interesting word that we use. To harrow is an agricultural term and it refers to the process of breaking up the soil. Christ breaks into hell and, in the tradition, finds our first parents Adam and Eve, and the righteous souls from the Old Testament and brings them out into the new life that his death has secured for us.
I remember going for the first time to the church of St Saviour in Chora in Istanbul. There in a separate chapel to what would have been the main church is a perfectly preserved fresco in the apse where the altar would have stood, of the harrowing of hell. In it Christ is literally pulling Adam and Eve out of shattered hell and into new life. He has each by a wrist, he isn’t leading them, he is literally pulling them out, this rescue of those who perhaps do not want to be rescued, reluctant to leave the prison they have known, fearful of what lies beyond. It is the most amazing, vigorous, energetic image.
But I think that the fresco reveals a truth about our self. We can easily find ourselves resisting God; it seems easier to be where we are than where God wants us to be, in the dark, rather than the light, in the prison of our making rather than enjoying the freedom in Christ which is all gift. We can be perverse beings and Jesus in hell challenges this tendency and proclaims new life to the spirits in prison.
This was no day of rest for Jesus – the work of resurrection had begun. But we with the disciples must wait.
Lord challenge my perversity,
challenge my complacency
and in the vigour of your new life
draw me into light and freedom.