Harrowing times

Today is Easter Sunday, the day we remember as the culmination of Jesus’s passion. Today he is back living on earth after miraculously recovering from the mortal wound he received on the cross on Friday. Sunday and Friday are covered, but what happened on Saturday.

For me , Saturday was about a pink moon, about a Ferrari GT250, about the football, streaming into my ears, about a lot of running on Dorset beaches and hopping on and off busses as I made my way round Poole harbour.

Onto the Studland ferry

As I made my journey, I considered what happened to Jesus after he died and before his empty tomb was found on the “third day”. Saturday gets little mention in the bible, though Peter suggest that Jesus spent it productively “Jesus went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago”.

It was left to a later writer , Nicodemus, to build a proper timeline for Saturday and its from this non-biblical source that the creed’s line “he descended into hell” comes. We say these words when we take communion , though there is no biblical authority for them!

In fact, the descent into hell became one of the favourite tropes for medieval writers, from the playwrights who devoted mummer’s plays to my dear William Langland, whose Piers Ploughman is released from spiritual hell in a vision of Christ blinding Lucifer, and setting him free from hell

So blinded was he that Lucifer could not see;
And our Lord took those whom he loved into his light,
Saying to Satan: “See! Here is my soul to make amends
For all sinful souls, to save those that are worthy.
They are mine, of me they came; I have the better claim.
Though Reason remember (and my own Justice)
That if they ate the apple all should die,
I did not promise them to hell here forever!

The righteous shall be saved

This is one of my favourite bits of the poem “the book of Piers the Plowman”, it is the point of the poem, that there is hope , no matter how dark things look.

For peasants like Piers, the intercession of Jesus was the hope.

A few years after Langland’s death, Martin Luther, when asked about the harrowing of hell, “It is enough to preach the article to the laypeople as they have learned to know it in the past from the stained glass and other sources”.

Justice shall be done

I love Martin Luther’s humanity here, I don’t see him striving after a deep truth but using myth to alleviate suffering, a kind of benign propaganda from the church to keep people going.

Keeping going.

One of the phrases that gets used by Ukranians about the brutality of what they’re going through is “I can’t believe that this is happening in the 21st century (or variants). Of course the behaviour of soldiers in war is likely to be much the same whatever century we are in. We have to accept that conventions made in Geneva get forgotten when war is at its worst.

There is no retribution that will come upon the perpetrators of the violence in Mariupol , but the consolation of the Christian religion is that Jesus used his time in hell not just to save the likes of Piers, but to consign those with blood on their hands, to eternal damnation.

This was the “learning”  that Luther refers to , it is the flip side to Dante’s Paradise, it is deeply burned into our European psyche that there is a higher justice than can be dealt out in courts trying crimes against humanity. What war produces is crimes against humanity and crimes against God.

That’s what keeps people going when faced with such overwhelming injustice as is happening in Ukraine today.

Easter Saturday

Whether you see Christ descending into hell as gospel or myth, the story has its use. I expect that, were we to stop and think of Easter as more than a time to eat chocolate, we’d think about the significance of the harrowing of hell.

These are harrowing times, for those who are in Ukraine, for the 5m diaspora and for many of us who prey for peace. We can only hope that order will reassert itself and that those who are unleashed on a blameless people, are sent home to war no more.

Though we know that like Piers and generations before him, justice comes from on high and not from social institutions.

I did not promise them to hell forever

Bosch’s vision of Dante’s Hell

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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