Harrowing Hell & Holy Liminality

Betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. Departed but not arrived.

Justice proclaimed but not yet fully practiced. Equality enacted but repeatedly denied. New life promised in the midst of death.

These are profound but often difficult moments. Some decades ago now, anthropologist Victor Turner analyzed moments of transition when someone has started to leave one phase of life but hasn’t yet moved fully into the next. Think adolescence, that awkward slice of life when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. Turner referred to these as “liminal” moments, taken from the Latin word “limen,” for threshold.

The fecundity of these in-between states dates much further back than Turner, to ancient mythology. “Liminal deities” preside over thresholds, gates, and doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of doorways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.

Liminal moments can be challenging and disconcerting; just ask any teenager. My own constitutional impatience makes it difficult to rest after finishing a project; I’m eager to start the next one. Communities and institutions in transition frequently want to skip over all the unsettling liminal bits, those untidy passages where the past still haunts and the future remains unclear. Sloughing of the past too quickly risks losing what we might need to make a leap forward.

But there are other kinds of liminality, too. Moments of getting stuck between a past that we won’t relinquish and a future we’re unwilling to embrace.

The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) heralded a long overdue transition toward racial equality in the U.S. Not only is a racially just society still woefully elusive, current legislative initiatives would drag us back to the “Mad Men” era if not a virtual Jim Crow. A woman’s right to make decisions about her own body should have been settled decades ago even as contraception is once again on the legislative table. The Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003; lesbian and gay couples can now have sex without fear of prosecution but they can’t get married.

There is much work to do, and neither nostalgia nor utopia will help us. Navigating the liminal “betwixt and between” thus proves both rich and challenging. The past is familiar but sometimes painful; the future is hopeful but unknown. Today, on the Christian calendar, I’m reminded that Jesus hallows the liminal by harrowing hell.

The day between Good Friday and Easter, “Holy Saturday,” is a truly peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves with Sunday preparations.

Christian tradition has Jesus doing something on this day as well – descending into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. This is the sacred version of “no child left behind.” In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

One of my favorite depictions of this Holy Liminality is in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. Actually, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

On this day, this Holy Saturday, in the midst of busy preparations for the Feast of Resurrection, let us pause, even for a moment, to remember what we marked yesterday: the lengths to which imperial forces will go to maintain the status quo. Let us remember as well all those who came before us, the pioneers and visionaries who carved an arduous path toward a better world. Let us remember all those who did not live to see that promise fulfilled. And let us remember all this to fuel the hope we need for the work still to do — a profound hope indeed, which, as tomorrow’s feast reminds us, was first announced by women.

The promise of tomorrow cannot be won by forgetting yesterday. That makes this particular Saturday not only peculiar but also, and therefore, holy.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

7 thoughts on “Harrowing Hell & Holy Liminality”

    1. I am feeling the effects too so many church services in a few days time, and this is a welcome reminder to try and take a little rest before tonight and tomorrow. Jesus is working right now- I can take the morning off. xo Jim

  1. I liked this piece so much that I reblogged it to my blog on Labyrinth.Living. I visited the Chora Church in Istanbul last October and ‘stole’ your picture as well, as it is better than the one I took with my camera. Thank you and Blessed Easter!

Leave a Reply