Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
- Matthew 27:61 from full reading Matthew 27: 57-66.
On the wall above my desk at home, I have a poster of a thirteenth century Russian icon. It came to me as an unexpected gift from a woman I had been talking with about a part of the Holy Week remembrances which is, to me, one of the most arresting and significant, perhaps because so little is said about it in the Bible.
It’s the part that is commemorated in the Creeds of the church in the rubric ‘he descended into hell’, and the icon is of Christ harrowing hell, releasing the tormented spirits from bondage.
The period to which this refers goes from the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross until that part in the gospels which begins ‘early in the morning of the first day of the week’, which introduces the resurrection stories. I am drawn back again and again to this time, which the church has called ‘Holy Saturday.’ We are used to thinking of Good Friday as the longest day, the darkest day. But for many, many people, it is the day after which is the bleakest.
Matthew’s gospel tells us of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary waiting and watching by the tomb. To me, they stand for all the women who accompanied Jesus, and all the people who accompany their loved ones in presence and compassion, just being there, doing small, ordinary, important practical things. Now there is nothing more they can do. They can only weep and watch. They are powerless paradigms of our own inadequacy and frailty in the face of the deep hurt of others, in the face of all that we cannot prevent or solve.
The story has moved from one of presence and action to one of absence and silence. It is the powerlessness of the poor of the world in the face of a catastrophically unjust world economic order which puts massive, unquantifiable resources into protecting the interests and profits of the powerful of the world and almost nothing by comparison into overcoming poverty and preventable or treatable disease.
It is the powerlessness of being confronted with violence at every level – irrational, intractable, and unpredictable in its outcome, breeding only more violence. It is the powerlessness of a mother watching her child die, or indeed, of all of us watching anyone we love die.
We who are Christians give a special meaning to the suffering and death of Jesus – and here again I am brought back to the image of Christ harrowing hell, and to the notion that when Jesus died on the cross, he wasn’t finished! It wasn’t all over yet. He descended into hell, and harrowed it, cleaned it out, released the tormented souls from bondage. In the face of the powerlessness of the accompanier, here is an image of enormous power and agency. Not only, where did he go, but what did he do?
Where Jesus went, his friends could not ultimately follow. But where did Jesus go? Apart from a few rather overheated verses in Matthew, the gospels are resolutely and sensibly silent. The creeds tell us he descended into hell. This is not, I think, a Harry Potter quest against evil. None of us can really describe what the reality of suffering, of the descent into hell, is for another, even if that other is Jesus.
Can it be that the power which is the power of God is most active, is strongest, precisely in the absence and the silence? The absence and silence allow us to bring our own deepest reflection and responsiveness to bear, for though we cannot go there, we can read what it says to each one of us.
The cross is a symbol of all that the worst of human violence and fear can do to goodness and innocence. But the descent into hell goes beyond even that; into the depths of my own potential for violence and corruption, into my nameless imaginings and my darkest fears of punishment, betrayal, abandonment, and the terror of the unknown, into the destruction of all life and love. Death is not the worst fear.
But Christ harrowed hell, and so there is nowhere in life or in death that is not God-encompassed, nowhere that is beyond the power of love to reach and touch, nothing and no one beyond redemption and the possibility of new life. ‘Why do you look for him among the dead?’ the angel asked. ‘He is not here. He is alive.’
This is not a story about time, or about location. It is a story about hope. Is hope related to the future? Yes. But even more, it is related to love. Hope is not a time-story. It is a love-story. Jesus dares to place love above time. All the healing stories of the gospels, and ultimately the confession of the faith that ‘he descended into hell, and on the third day he rose again from the dead’ point to this awesome truth. Hope is as impassioned by love as is every healing word and action of Jesus.
The first followers of Jesus only knew, on that longest day, about the No-longer. Jesus was no longer with them. But we who have the gospel know about the Not-yet. We have been, and are, set free from bondage, released to live out of our freedom and not out of our fears. In every given moment (and the moment, the now, is all that we know we have), we have this choice, the choice of death in us, or of life in us. Christ has set us free, and Paul asks ‘why therefore do you not live as free people?’
Always we live in that moment between the Not-yet. All around us, people choose life out of absence and silence. None of us can do it all or even most of the time, we are fragile and we falter. But every time we choose to live, we are living that moment between the No-longer and the Not-yet, because we trust in the Yet.
Sit in a time of silence.
Sit in a time of silence.
Today’s contributor is Kathy Galloway.
Published on 11 April 2020