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Harrow My Heart

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.

“Harrowing of 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.

“Easter Morning,” Jen Norton

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.

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Living on the Edge

This peculiar day reminds me of the 1990 film, “Postcards from the Edge,” mostly because of its wonderful title. I imagine Jesus sending one of those postcards especially today, called “Holy Saturday” on the Christian calendar. It would read, “Don’t be afraid.”

Edges can certainly trouble and terrify when living on the edge of foreclosure, or the edge of terminal illness, or the edges of a crumbling relationship. Edges can also intrigue and entice as gateways, portals, and thresholds.

In ancient mythologies “liminal deities” preside over doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman pantheons, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of gateways, 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.janus

“Holy Saturday” sits on the potent edge between Good Friday and Easter, and it certainly qualifies as a peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves preparing for tomorrow’s liturgical festivities. Christian tradition has Jesus busy with something else.

On this day in the Christian imagination Jesus descends into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

chora_anastasis3One of my favorite depictions of this sacred edge resides 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. More accurately, 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?”

I love Advent and Christmas for the reassurance that flesh matters. I love Epiphany for its expansive horizons of who celebrates God in flesh. I pay attention to Ash Wednesday (for the sake of my mortality) and Lent moves me to live for what matters. But Good Friday proves painful and Easter somehow premature. I love this day in between, this day that sits on the edge. It feels both honest and fantastical all at the same time.

Reflecting on edges I nearly always think of a beach, that liminal space where land and sea meet. Most human beings seem ineluctably drawn to those sandy liminal locations – dry yet also wet; solid but shifting; navigable while also treacherous. Humans stroll along them, launch ships from them, enjoy bonfires and picnics on them—and occasionally fall prey to their unpredictable dangers. A “day at the beach” can entail hours of frolicking in the surf yet they always lead back to the familiar comforts of a place to stand, or more likely to sit and enjoy food and drink.

I imagine the Eucharistic Table sitting on that kind of liminal edge, where Christians share bread and wine on the edge between memory and hope. There we remember suffering and death even as we proclaim resurrection. The former is barely past; the latter hasn’t quite yet arrived.table_beach

To me, Easter is above all a liminal, edgy season, which “Holy Saturday” captures so well. This season invites us to live on the edge, refusing to remain mired in a broken past yet not quite sure what stepping over the horizon will look like. Edgy living is both hopeful and humble, marked by a confidence about the future but without any swagger.

It also takes courage to live on the edge, which is why I’m grateful for this peculiar day and the postcard I imagine Jesus sending from his sojourn among the dead: “Don’t be afraid.”

As a spiritual practice I enjoy returning to some of my favorite hymn tunes and writing new lyrics to accompany them. I did that this Lenten season with the wonderful American folk melody, “Land of Rest” (you might recognize it from the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on US National Parks). I offer it here for a bit sustenance for our lives on the edge.

Harbor Home

From mountain high and ocean deep
along a distant shore,
a starry host with vigil keep
a bright and open door.

Unfurl the sails to conquer fear
‘midst gale and storm-tossed wave,
the Spirit guides all creatures dear,
these mortal ships to save.

The Table set in trackless seas
where Christ before us trod,
will chart the course with mysteries
to harbor home in God.

(Words: ©2013, Jay Emerson Johnson
Music: Land of Rest, American folk melody)

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