Every human community has threads of resentment running through it and chunky grudges clogging up its communal arteries. This is certainly true—sometimes it seems especially true—in religious communities and in our churches. This is especially discouraging as well since many of us harbor rather high standards for faith communities, or at least some high hopes.
Since returning to full-time congregational ministry two years ago, I’ve been reminded of the sacred ground we all tread in parish life. Traces of heartbreak and the wounds of grief punctuate so many conversations, just as glimpses of joy and spiritual insight hover over our committees and circulate through our worship. I wake up every single Sunday morning astonished at the privilege of doing this work.
I have also learned in fresh ways some perennial truths about life in community: resentment is far more contagious than joy, and the infection can linger for far longer than our memory of when we were first exposed. Still more: bitterness takes no work at all (though it is exhausting) and gladness requires effort (even though it is thoroughly refreshing).
These are the peculiar landscapes of human relationships, manifesting the often complex contours of the human heart. All of this is on my mind today, on this Holy Saturday. It’s one of my favorite days on the church calendar because it marks one of my favorite religious notions—Jesus harrowing Hell.
A few scant biblical references and a single phrase in the Apostles’ Creed—Jesus “descended to the dead”—eventually blossomed in Christian traditions into a full-blown harrowing of Hell itself, smashing its gates, and releasing its captives. All of this on the day in between crucifixion and resurrection—a busy day for Jesus and not only for altar guild members readying sanctuaries for Easter morning.
I truly love the image of Jesus fetching our ancestors from whatever limbo they’ve been trapped in for however long, but right now I need Jesus to harrow the rocky soil of my heart. “Soil” is the perfect image for this day, and for more than one reason. “Harrowing,” of course, most commonly appears among farmers and gardeners; we “harrow” the soil by plowing it and breaking up the hardened clods. And according to the Johannine account of the Gospel, the dead Jesus was buried in a garden tomb.
Those images occurred to me in the shower this morning as I reflected on how easily my petty grievances can harden my heart, parch my soul, and threaten to desiccate all that fertile soil, that interior field where I would much prefer to plant the seeds of faith, hope, and especially love.
I don’t know that I want the “three-person’d God” to “batter my heart,” as John Donne imagined, but I do think its earthy fields could use some plowing, some gentle rains of grace, and the warm sunlight of compassion.
On that first Easter morning, according to John, Mary Magdalene supposed that the risen Jesus was a gardener. We sometimes say that she “mistook” him for a gardener. But I don’t think that was a mistake at all. New life sometimes—likely often, perhaps always—needs some harrowing.
2 thoughts on “Harrow My Heart”
I appreciate the reference to Donne, as I do all of this reflection. One day to wrestle with the darkness, the powers that seem to overtake us, one day that certainly felt longer and often is much much longer. May we always remember that the resurrection does not happen without the death, the struggle, the time in the darkness. When we emerge, we are truly renewed. One does not exist without the other. In all things, this is true. 🌑🌓🌕
Jay, I am with you all the way here…thank you for putting into prose what I understand about this profound theology of God’s loving mercy: that God , manifest in Christ Jesus, was willing to enter the fullness of human experience enough to ‘literally go into the depths of human Hell’ to be with hose whose lives were HELL! Who is it that said Jesus went to Hell to retrieve his friend Judas.. John Milton, Paradise Lost?
THIS IS DEEPLY PERSONAL, yet I share here as a witness to the power of God’s love in this universe, given to us through His beloved Son, Jesus Christ:
My grieving heart has been comforted for over 50 years, as I believe Jesus went to Hell (the darkest, loneliest, most despair-riden place of the human mind) to offer God’s love and mercy to the dead, lost in this despair; including my brother who took his own life because in his own words: “I must die because I am incapable of love…Incapable of real love…I am an evolutionary dead end.” January 1970. [I was only allowed access to this suicide note in March of this year.] The note also proceeds to say, in self-recognition of his contradictory thinking while dying: “I love you all” naming our family members, cousins and closest friends… my belief is affirmed. In death my brother found the love he wished to express while living 💔 😪 😔