A meditation on Holy Saturday

Canon Giles Frazier was deeply moved by Bishop Pierre Whalon’s account of his recent visit to Haiti on behalf of the Episcopal Church. Canon Frazier used a detail of the eyewitness account as the jumping off point for a meditation of the work of Christ during the most Holy Sabbath of the Triduum, and the need for new understandings of the Atonement.

“[Bishop Whalon] spoke of coming across an open pit of bodies that people were also using as a rubbish tip for house hold refuse. All he wanted to do was climb down into the pit and clear out the rubbish. That is to be my abiding prayer thought for this year’s Holy Week.

Christ jumps into the pit of death to claim even the grave for his victory. With this last act, the victory over death, Christ is the Lord of all. There are no corners of human experience that cannot be redeemed by his love.

All of this is extremely redolent of that popular medieval theology known as the harrowing of hell. As the Apostles’ Creed puts it: Christ ‘was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.’ Yet, despite this credal reference, modern Protestantism does not regard the descent into hell as a vital part of the economy of salvation. I suspect that it simply believes that its own very narrow penal reading of the atonement can shoulder all the work of salvation that is necessary.

And yet, in the Eastern Churches, where penal views of the atonement have never caught on, the idea of Christ’s descent into hell is central to the whole Easter story. Indeed, the image of Christ shattering the gates of hell and holding out a helping hand to Adam and Eve, bringing them out of the pit, is canonical in Orthodox iconography. Christ is life. In Christ, life triumphs over death. This, of course, is why the harrowing of hell is a natural companion to a Christus Victor theology of the atone­ment.”

Read the full essay here.

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