It's the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In church terms, it's usually called Holy Saturday, a day when there doesn't seem to be much going on other than usual Saturday chores. Oh, there are probably people making sure Junior and Sister's new clothes are well-pressed and ready for church tomorrow. Some families will dye Easter eggs that will be hidden around the house and yard so the kids can have the fun of finding them. Easter baskets have been purchased (featuring thematic toys, balls, dolls, and cars) or Easter grass and different kinds of candies for the do-it-yourself baskets. Tonight parents will fill those baskets with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow eggs, pink and yellow chicks and bunnies (the ever-delightful Peeps, of course), jelly beans and the like. It will be a sugar rush second only to Halloween, and even adults will sneak a jelly bean or Peep to remind them of when they were kids and found their own Easter baskets.
Church-wise, the Saturday before Easter is a morning full of polishing, dusting, vacuuming, draping the altar with linens so white they glisten and arranging flowers and lilies by the dozens. Before noon, everything is usually ready for the Great Vigil of Easter, sometimes held on Saturday night, sometimes early on Easter morning. But, for the afternoon, the church is quiet and waiting.
We know the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and Easter Sunday is pretty familiar too. But what about the time between when Jesus was laid in the tomb and the stone rolled across the entrance and the first witnesses finding the stone rolled away and the tomb empty? We know that is probably the greatest mystery but it doesn't stop us from wondering, just as it did our ancestors.
When we recite the Apostles' Creed, we say "...He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again..." (BCP p. 304). Older versions of the Creed use "...he descended into hell...," something suggested or mentioned in various parts of the gospels and epistles. Tradition has it that between being laid in the tomb and rising from it, Jesus went to the realm of the dead, Sheol, where all souls/spirits went. There was no punishment or glory, simply a place of eternal rest. There Jesus led out the souls of those who had lived before his coming to earth, people like the patriarchs, prophets and even Adam and Eve.
This signified his place as the second Adam, releasing souls by his power over sin and death just as the first Adam had introduced sin into the world. It became quite a popular story in the Middle Ages, and many people watched the miracle plays that dramatized the events. By this time, Sheol had become the Greek Hades which had gained an additional layer of meaning as a place of punishment. By the harrowing of Hell, Jesus became the victor over Hell's power and even Hell's own gates. Watching this dramatized gave the people a way of understanding a complicated issue and a moral lesson.
The story is traditional doctrine but seldom taught as such. We say the sentence of the creed and just sort of skip over it without thinking about it very much, if at all. But think of the early Christians and those in the Middle Ages. For them it was a very important thing, a promise that Jesus would keep the gates of Hell open not just for the one-way traffic of souls being forced in. For a majority of people who were trapped in a kind of hell of slavery, bondage, poverty and lack of control over most parts of their lives, it must have been comforting to see that the Jesus they heard about in church (if they could understand the Latin), could actually save people from Hell itself, a place even worse than what their normal situations were. Like the stained glass windows of the churches, the miracle plays such as the Harrowing of Hell were as much for education as simply for beauty or entertainment.
Of course, we don't know that visiting Sheol is how Jesus spent Good Friday night and perhaps Holy Saturday night as well, but it is one possibility. We celebrate Easter as Jesus' victory over death and a foreshadowing of our own rising again at the Last Judgment. We don't always stop and think about Hell and, in fact, some of us really only think about sin seriously during Lent when it is sort of made clear to us that we need to take sin seriously. For some of us, the belief that Hell will be empty and that all will have a second chance with God, no matter how evil the acts they have done, is a comforting thought while others are busy contemplating Hell well-populated with dictators, despots, miscreants, felons and people who simply don't believe the right things (in short, who don't agree with their particular beliefs).
I don't find it hard to think of Jesus bursting open the gates of Hell and bringing out the righteous. I don't even have a problem thinking of him bringing out people others would consider far from righteous. The mercy of God extended through Jesus is a power stronger than anything, including sin and death, so is it impossible that Hell is a place we choose here and now rather than face at some point in our lives when our earthly existence comes to a close?
That's something I think I will be contemplating this Saturday night. I'm betting on a very full Heaven and a very empty Hell. One night in Hell might just have emptied the place for good.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 4, 2015.