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Flowers Delivered and Hell Harrowed: The Everyday Rhythms of Hope

It’s an early Saturday morning. Gentle rays of sunshine are trickling through stained glass, kaleidoscoping around the baptismal font. I lift the wooden lid from the font and liberate a small spider who had wandered in there, who knows how long ago; the stone hasn’t felt water’s blessing for some time.

I unlock the front door of the church to help Mary bring in the Easter lilies from her car; she’s perfectly named for this occasion. Mary co-directs the altar guild and there’s work to be done, even when the sanctuary will remain mostly empty of people tomorrow and we stream prayers and chants and bread and wine through pixelated images into people’s homes.

Margie and David were just here and we all looked for David’s glasses; he thought he might have left them in the sanctuary after preaching one of the Good Friday homilies yesterday afternoon. We looked in the sacristy but didn’t see them anywhere amidst all the religious hardware strewn about, the candlesticks and altar books and kneelers and linens that had been stripped away from the Altar on Thursday evening.

Tom arrives, and then Valerie, all of us in casual Saturday morning garb—I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and the leather jacket I bought with my mother at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The sixth anniversary of her death was this past Wednesday, and the rectory has been filled with the smell of roses since then; Bobbie and Margie brought the roses to me that afternoon, to help me mark that mid-week moment.

It’s a wonderfully strange day, this Saturday that sits betwixt and between, this day of ordinary patterns of everyday life that carry charged particles of hope and anticipation.

Not somewhere else, but here; not in some other time, but right now God moves and stirs among us. Holy Saturday reminds me every year about this everyday character of Christian hope. The drama of Maundy Thursday and the heartache of Good Friday have unfolded with whatever poignancy they hold for each of us still and then…Saturday. There’s cleaning to be done, some fussing with flowers, returning fair linens to the Table, freeing a spider from a dry font.

Meanwhile, as early traditions would have it, Jesus is not quietly dead in his tomb nor merely resting on this day but busily harrowing Hell. Descending among the dead, he tramples Hell’s gates beneath his pierced feet—the gates are destroyed, not only so no one need ever enter through them again but also to ensure that everyone there is freed—every single one.

One of my favorite icons of this underworld drama depicts Jesus yanking Adam and Eve from their graves, both of them apparently startled and maybe even a tad reluctant, unsure of what this new life might mean.

I appreciate that reminder, too: resurrection is not resuscitation, but something utterly new and fresh and disorienting. And also this: no one is left out of this shocking newness and no one is left behind.

Not a single one.

Harrowing of Hell, Church of the Holy Savior, Istanbul

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A Holy Harrowing and an Empty Hell

Whom would Jesus leave behind? Spoiler alert: no one.

I grew up in a brand of Evangelical Christianity percolating throughout with an ambient anxiety. Despite swimming through a constant stream of rhetorical grace and bathed in the assurances of divine love, the tradition bred considerable consternation: would I, finally, be included among the saved? Do I have enough belief, believe the right things? Have I filed all my spiritual insurance forms?

The popularity of the Left Behind series of novels (including the movie version) puts a slightly different spin on this apocalyptic disquietude: finding assurance for one’s inclusion by excluding others. Or as a friend of mine from seminary more pointedly asked of such a strategy, “How many people have to burn in Hell for you to feel comfortable?”

Today is Holy Saturday – a celestial silence and an earthly pause between the desolation of Good Friday and the rousing announcement of Easter. A lingering grief weights our steps, tugging us back from the rise of anticipatory joy.  This is a peculiar slice of liturgically liminal time when nothing much seems stirring.

Not quite so for some strands of the traditions that would have us see Jesus quite busily at work on this day. One of my favorite icons captures the drama of his labor: Jesus harrows Hell, smashes its gates, and yanks a startled Adam and Eve from their graves and into the blazing light of a new day.chora_anastasis

I see little reason to suppose that Jesus administered orthodoxy tests after tearing down Hell’s fortress, or that he sorted and divided between the worthy and the unworthy prisoners of death, or that anything other than a heart hungry for love and for life – for that Love that is Life – made any difference in his liberating reach. And why should we suppose any of this given the scandalous grace of Jesus’ life and ministry?

In the realm of God that Jesus preached and lived, no prodigal fails to return, no sheep remains missing, no coin ever goes unfound (Luke 15). “Gather up all the fragments, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6). Jesus said this after feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish and with twelve baskets of leftovers, an auspicious number: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples. Apparently even Judas is scooped up among the rescued bits so that nothing and no one will ever be lost.

The Gospel astonishes – or should – in an American society where Syrian refugees are left behind (even after they are gassed by others and bombed by us); where children living in poverty are left behind in the decimation of public education; where low-income elders are left behind in a health care system designed for the comfortably employed and independently wealthy; where all of the planet’s other animals and its very ecosystems are left behind to boil, choke, starve, shrink, and whither for the greater good of corporate profits.

Christian faith offers ample reason to resist these political postures and policies with a Gospel that so many Christians – myself included – find difficult to embrace. Preaching and living this Gospel ought to send shock waves through our social fabric, ruffling the preened feathers of productivity, even foment revolutionary unrest.

Perhaps it’s just unsustainable, this profound message of unrelenting and unqualified grace. The rawness of this grace, its refusal to consider merit of any kind, grates against ambition and taints the laurels of achievement. Perhaps too many of us Christians – myself included – worry that grace itself is a finite commodity, precious but scarce, or maybe we too often live as the prodigal son’s older brother: resentful of Daddy’s generosity.

Whatever the reasons, I find this Holy Saturday both bracing and harrowing. That icon I love? It’s no throwback to a literal reading of Genesis, nor mere nod to a sentimental reunion with Adam and Eve. As an iconic representation of humanity’s origins, those figures are us, all of us, no exceptions. And we, all of us, are yanked from our tombs.

May the joy of Easter season about to dawn inspire us to live with and among all other creatures as if no one is left behind – because no one is.

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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)

shore_water_distant