Holy Saturday - that odd time between the deep grief and mystery of Good Friday and the at the moment unimaginable joy of Easter - draws me, in the years when I can make the time, into reflection. This year I am recalling a passage I ran into when I was leading a study series on the 20th century spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill. In a wonderful book called The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed, she offers this quite lovely and insightful account of what we mean, in the Nicene Creed, when we say of Jesus that “he descended into hell” -- an event that is nowhere in Scripture, but did make it into the creed. So what, we often wonder,does it really mean? Here is Underhill:
One of the few passages of spiritual value in the Apocryphal Gospels, and the only one that has left its mark on the Creed, is that which describes the coming of the soul of Chrsit into the unseen world of the departed: His “descent into hell” to the rescue of those “spirits in prison” to whom the revelation of the Divine Charity had not been given on earth. Some of the greatest of the mediaeval painters have found in that story the perfect image of triumphant love. They show us the liberated soul of Jesus, robed in that humanity which has endured the anguish of the Passion, passing straight from this anguish to the delighted exercise of a saving charity. He comes with an irresistible rush, bearing the banner of redemption to the imprisoned souls of those who knew Him not. There they are, pressing forward to the mouth of the cave; the darkness, narrowness and unreality from which He comes to free them, at His own great cost. The awed delight of the souls He rescues, is nothing beside the Rescuer’s own ecstatic delight. It is as if the charity self-given on Calvary could not wait a moment, but rushed straight to the awaiting joy of releasing the souls of men. There is no hint of the agony and darkness through which He has won the power to do this. Everything is forgotten but the need which the Rescuer is able to meet.
That scene, if we place it -- as we should do-- before the lovely story of Easter and the Forty Days, helps us to an understanding of their special quality; and sets before us once for all Rescuing Love as the standard of Christian holiness, and its production in us as the very object of our transformation. For this is our tiny share in that Divine action whih rings the supernatural charity right down into the confusions and sorrows of our life, to “save” and transform. ( From The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed (1934; Morehouse), pp. 67-8.)
Two of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov and Scott Cairns, have found this a rich theme for meditation. Denise Levertov’s “Ikon; The Harrowing of Hell” can be found here and Scott Cairns, speaking with delight out of the Eastern Orthodox tradition he has embraced, has two poems I know of on this subject (perhaps more): “Into Hell and Out Again” can be found online here and there is a wonderful movement about Jesus in part three of his sequence “Three Descents”which you can read on the Image magazine website, here.
What if this is what the story is all about -- the “rescuing love” of a God who desires that all should come to life, and who shows us the way? Not at all “who’s in, who’s out?” But the joy of a God who desires to draw everyone home, into the Mystery of Love -- and who has already begun this process. For me this is a rich subject for meditation in this moment before the Easter celebration begins, and as we move into the season of this celebration.