Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Mark’s Passion Narrative – The Harrowing of Hell

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Mark 15 (34-37)

If you travel to Egypt to Old Cairo, you will find St. Sargious church (sometimes called St. Sergius or Abu Serga). It is said to be the place where the Holy family resided while in exile in Egypt. There are 16 frescos, with the last in the series picturing Jesus standing on the shattered “Gates of Hell”  bending down and pulling with one hand Adam and Eve from their tomb and  David, with a beard and Solomon, without one, wait on the other side.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe this art work in their latest book, The Last Week, which I have referenced throughout Lent and Holy Week. I should say from the beginning that I steal broadly from their next to last chapter in this post. This strange pair of scholars, one Lutheran and one Catholic, have written a provocative book that I recommend for everyone. You don’t have to agree with all their conclusions to appreciate their efforts.

In the book, they also describe that artwork in the Chora Church in Istanbul. Now a museum, one fresco likewise pictures a robed Jesus pulling Eve with his left hand and Adam with his right from their open sarcophagi. On the left side of Jesus, we find Abel, the first martyr in the Christian Old Testament and on the right, we find John the first martyr from the New Testament. Both are joined by lines of six “just and righteous persons” being led to heaven following Jesus. They note further that:

Beneath Christ’s feet lies a gagged, bound and prostrate Satan, and all around him are broken locks and shattered doors of Hades. Christ does not rise alone, but as head of all the holy ones, for how could the justice of God be established by exclusive treatment for him rather than by a community with him?

Borg and Crossan remind us that the Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel walks the reader day by day, then finally in three-hour segments, through a journey beginning on Sunday and finishing on that Friday before sunset, the Day of Preparation when Jesus is crucified. Borg and Crossan model their book on the Marcan day by day timeline. However, Mark says nothing about the Sabbath. His story begins again on Easter Sunday morning when it says that “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” Mark 16 (1).

Mark’s narrative is contrasted with our Apostles Creed which states that 1) on Friday, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. 2) that on Saturday, he descended into hell (most of us Methodists leave out that phrase, just as we also struggle with the notion of one Holy Catholic Church (i.e. Universal – which I might add does include the Catholics!) and 3) the third day he rose again from the dead, or if you prefer like Paul, God raised him from the dead.

Most of our churches sit silent on Saturday of Holy Week. That is true at my local church. We celebrate Palm Sunday, (inviting our children to participate in their first political demonstration). We skip Wednesday night supper, although that might be the time to gather for a meal with a foot washing drama. We celebrate Maundy Thursday and we strip the sanctuary that night as well, leaving the sanctuary in darkness. We return Friday night for a tenebrae service where the Johannine narrative is read and 14 candles are extinguished followed by the putting out the Christ candle at the moment of Jesus’ death. We return for a joyous celebration singing “He Is Risen” on Easter Sunday morning. For practical reasons, this year we have scheduled our annual Easter Egg hunt on Saturday morning, but that is coincidental, not liturgical.

Within the church traditions, Holy Saturday as a day of silence does not signal that it is bereft of meaning. In her recent book, Tenebrae: Holy Week after the Holocaust, Theresa Sanders explores the church’s liturgical traditions particularly from a viewpoint of addressing Christian anti-Judaism. As many of you know, this is one of my passions. Frankly, our church did pretty well this Holy Week. We only inadvertently told our children that the “Jews wanted to kill Jesus” one time. We made it through the entire Johannine narrative substituting “religious authorities” for the word, “Jews” and lightening did not strike.

Sanders speaks to the meaning of the day of silence as she discusses the tradition of Tenebrae which while not practiced widely in contemporary circles, reaches back into our liturgical history and its various traditions about the last three days of Holy Week. Many churches traditionally stripped the sanctuary of all vestments and other paraphernalia as part of the Good Friday service. As I had indicated, at our church, we do this at the end of the Maundy Thursday communion. When I lived in Chicago, on Good Friday, the 8th Day Center for Social Justice, a Catholic group, led a “stations of the cross” march around town briefly pausing at various sites highlighting issues of injustice. In the days when I walked, we would pause in protest of apartheid at the steps of the South African Embassy.

The point of the stripping of the sanctuary originally had to do with cleaning house in order to prepare for Easter Sunday, but it practically accomplishes a darkening of the sacred space and over time, this darkened space became metaphorical. Honesty requires admitting that part of the meaning that was traditionally attached to the darkness was what Pope Benedict the 14th in the 18th century declared as the supposed spiritual and moral darkness of the Jewish people.

But the metaphor also extends to the darkness of night and the darkness of death. Sanders’ words are deeply challenging.

We find ourselves then at the heart of what philosopher John Caputo has called the “undecidability” of our human situation. Undecidability, as Caputo understands it, is not only about texts (though it surely does that), but also our very lives. Texts are undecidable because they must always be interpreted, and interpretations are notoriously unstable.  But life too is unsteady, says Caputo. To be alive is to have “a brush with the deep undecidabilty in things with the wavering instability in things, with ….the silence of God that we cannot avoid even as it elicits a choice from us.”

That silence, ritualized in the empty dark waiting of Holy Saturday, has terrifying consequences.  That silence raises the deeply frightening, deeply troubling possibility that the meaning we think we find in life is simply one meaning, one meaning among thousands of other potential meanings. It raises the possibility that in the end that there is no meaning at all. It raises the possibility, that, if we are honest with ourselves, we have no way of knowing that the grave is not the final word or if there is reason to hope that even there we are of concern to God. We simply do not know.

Over the last several years, our little chapel has stood open on Saturday for solitary prayer, a chance to confront in the darkness the stark silence of God.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Now Borg and Crossan, in their chapter on Holy Saturday, seek to recover a different but complementary tradition, the “Harrowing of Hell.” As our creed declares, Jesus descends into Hell.  With deeper study recently of the Jewish context of the Jesus story and passion narrative, we have begun to understand anew the doctrine of the “resurrection of the dead” that was central to Jewish apocalyptic expectations.  It is less about the later understandings of Hell, but has more to do with the Jewish notion of Sheol, or the Greek, idea of Hades.  In what Borg and Crossan call “God’s Spring Cleaning.” all who have gone on before, particularly for those just and righteous martyrs, their suffering will be vindicated.

The Christain Old Testament has two different traditions in this regard. There is the vindication prior to death by God’s intervention. This would be the message of many stories of deliverance, for example the tale of Daniel in the Lions Den. The more prominent tradition at the time of Jesus would have talked about vindication after death. God’s choice not to intervene in the suffering and death of Jesus was in a sense required in order for Jesus to descend into the shadow world of Sheol, to act as liberator even there. Paul writes from this perspective when he speaks of God having raised Jesus as the first of many to come.

Borg and Crossan speak of three elements in the mythology of the harrowing of hell, three linked motifs. There is, “ a deception, in which the demons were allowed to crucify Jesus not knowing who he was; a descent, which was the actual reason for the death and burial; and a despoiling, whereby Jesus, as Son of God, broke open the prison of hell and released both himself and all the righteous ones who had preceded him there.”

I’ll not try to summarize the wide analysis of these matters that Borg and Crossan propose including issues of bodily resurrection and other doctrines. I will let this suffice as an introduction to their work, suggesting that you find a copy of their book for your library.

I would finish though noting that Mark’s gospel as a whole and the passion narrative in particular functions theologically as theodicy. The announcement of the coming Kingdom with its message of God’s pending vindication, proclaimed throughout the villages and cities of the Gallilee and Judea and also proclaimed in the depths of hell is a promise that in the long scheme of things, evil will finally end. Most of us operate in a Christian spiritual context of life beyond death. We do not perceive that we will be waiting around for some sort of “second coming,” even though we recite those words in our Eucharist liturgy. Most of us, experience the present narrative as an existential description of the depths of our living and dying, but also as a sociological promise that as MLK suggested saying that the elbow of history bends toward justice.

On this Holy Saturday, Grace and Peace,

John

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