First things first: yes, I do know that I am writing within the Octave of Easter, at least for Western Christians, not in the middle of the Triduum. But with Holy Saturday only a week past (and being celebrated today in Eastern churches), I keep returning to a liturgy I shared in on that day, with the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem in Vézelay, France. This particular Triduum liturgy took place mid-day on Holy Saturday and was titled “Office de la Descente aux Enfers.” Given that the Communities of Jerusalem are influenced, inter alia, by Eastern, particularly Byzantine liturgical traditions, the celebration of this office was not surprising in and of itself. What did surprise me was what difference the image of a Christ descending into hell and freeing captives offered spiritually. This image was quite different from the image of the silence of Holy Saturday, with its focus on a dead Christ, entombed, awaiting resurrection. Instead, the image of the Christ who “harrows hell” on Holy Saturday is a startlingly vibrant one, as Christ descends, breaks open the doors of the underworld, and leads forth the just who have died.
Eastern iconography and the liturgical tradition to which it belongs make much more of this vision of Holy Saturday than their Western counterparts. In the East, the Harrowing of Hell (or: Hades) is the traditional iconography for Holy Saturday, and its theme is carried forward into the iconography of the Resurrection. The traditional icons of the Resurrection image Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell, victorious and resurrected, pulling Adam and Eve out of Hades.
I realize that we struggle today to articulate the meaning of Jesus’s cross and resurrection to our contemporaries (and sometimes to ourselves?), never mind adding that Christ also “descended into hell.” But at least last Saturday, I found the focus, in worship, on Christ’s great struggle to redeem even the past deeply moving, more so than any contemplation of the silence of the grave on Holy Saturday. And given the many hells of our own times and making, I for one welcomed the image of Christ’s descent and battle for life, even for those long gone.