Holy Saturday & The Harrowing of Hell

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Christians do not believe Christ pretended to suffer or seemed to die. We believe that Christ suffered, died and was buried. That is, he went among the dead, just as every human being must go. Whatever is to be found in the tomb, whatever human eyes open upon after death, Christ witnessed and experienced. What can this mean for us?

All creation, all life is made new in the death and resurrection of Christ. But his sovereignty does not end at the grave. His kingship is not restricted to the world of the living. Christ goes among the dead in an act the Church names the Harrowing of Hell. It is an elegant phrase, for a harrow is a farm implement, used to turn up the packed earth and prepare it for sowing. Clods are broken up and the hard, impermeable ground is loosened and opened that it might receive seed and water, light and air.

His sovereignty does not end at the grave.

We know the seed Christ sows. It is the seed of living bread and everlasting life. In John’s account of the resurrection, Mary of Magdala finds the risen Christ standing outside his empty tomb. She mistakes him for the gardener, but, even in her confusion, Mary seems to sense something of the truth. Before her is the risen Christ, who has indeed gone down among the dead like a gardener, overturning the reign of death and overturning, harrowing, its dry lifeless ground.

On Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church prays:

Today Hades tearfully sighs: “Would that I had not received him who was born of Mary, for he came to me and destroyed my power; he broke my bronze gates, and, being God, delivered the souls I had been holding captive.” O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!

Today Hades groans: “My power has vanished. I received one who died as mortals die, but I could not hold him: with him and through him, I lost those over which I had ruled. I held control over the dead since the world began, and lo, he raises all up with him!” O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection.

– Melissa Musick