In the Abyss
The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection, is always a little bit odd for faithful Christians. The intensity of Lent and Holy Week gives way to, well, normalcy. Maybe you sleep in. There’s no church service to go to, unless it’s a vigil later that night. You get up. People are getting on with their Saturday – people who don’t go to church. They mow the lawn, go out for breakfast, play soccer, or work on their taxes. It”s the middle of Spring, and people get on with ordinary Springy things.
For Christians this normalcy is weird. It’s the last day of Lent. From being reminded of their mortality on Ash Wednesday six and a half weeks before they are now remembering the mortality of Jesus, and how he was placed in the grave. And, just as it was the case some twenty centuries before, life goes on, ignoring that Jesus of Nazareth is dead and buried.
The Daily Office Lectionary prescribes a reading from Hebrews that we already saw in the week after the First Sunday in Lent, and a passage from Romans that we have already read. Appropriately for the day, they are messages of hope.
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
‘As in my anger I swore, / They shall not enter my rest” ’,
though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’ And again in this place it says, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,
‘Today, if you hear his voice, / do not harden your hearts.’
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday? The readings above do not say. First Peter 3.18-19 suggests that he descended to the dead to preach the good news to those in Sheol.
He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison . . .
This is the Harrowing of Hell, which has been the subject of many icons:
The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, saw the descent into hell as the ultimate end of kenosis, the outpouring of the Word into fleshly existence. It is truly death, but it is also a salvific event. Jesus is not simply suspended, or in some proto-resurrection state. Rather, his death is in solidarity with all who have died, as his life was in solidarity with all who live. By participating in Jesus’s body through membership in the church we die and descend with him and then rise with him; we make this our own through our own outpouring of ourselves towards our neighbours near and far, even unto death, for we trust that God will not abandon us even in death.
This day is a Sabbath, and not only because it is the Jewish day of rest. It is the day on which we remind ourselves that we are dead to sin but alive in the Spirit. It is the day when we rest in preparation of the Day of Resurrection.
This concludes Lenten Readings. If you’ve read parts of it, thank you! I’ll take a break from daily blogging for awhile. Then I will begin to publish extracts from the drafts of my dissertation on the theological legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, entitled Unsettling Theology.