This sermon was originally preached for an online reflection on Holy Saturday at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.
Relevant lectionary readings here.
It’s Holy Saturday, the morning after it happened.
The disciples are huddled inside, frozen and afraid.
A few of the women have begun preparing burial spices, channeling their mourning into action, a labor of love, a final act of devotion for their dead friend and teacher.
Grief is like that. It freezes some of us, making it hard to get out of bed. It makes some of us feel itchy inside, like we have to do something. Sometimes we feel both. Grief heightens dynamics in families, magnifies personalities and roles.
Holy Saturday is a day about the aftermath of trauma. Jesus’ followers had just witnessed the brutal execution of their leader and with his death, they also buried their hopes for the future. Their dreams of revolution, of freedom.
But this was more than just some symbolic disappointment. This was the person they had lived with and ate with and learned from for years. And this death was ugly. And bloody. It was the sort of visceral memory that, years later, still makes it hard to sleep. Heart pounding, chest tight.
Yesterday was the trauma, when they hung him from a tree. Tonight after sundown, we know, although they didn’t, that resurrection is coming. But Holy Saturday is the dreadful in-between time. A time between the horror and the healing. A heavy, heavy waiting.
We’ve been doing a lot of waiting lately. Waiting to hear if events are cancelled. Waiting for test results. Waiting to make plans. Waiting for news conferences and the latest updated numbers. Waiting to know when we can gather again in person. Waiting to see if that cough is allergies or something worse. Cooped up, sheltered in place, uncertain, often afraid. And waiting, waiting, waiting.
I’m the type of griever that usually wants to be doing something. I channel my anxiety into over-functioning as a way to regain control. Sometimes keeping busy is helpful on some level, even necessary. There has to be someone who steps up to plan funerals or make tough decisions. But eventually those tasks are finished. And I run out of things to do to numb myself. And then I’m just left with my thoughts. And the feelings. It’s almost unbearable.
Sometimes I keep working, keep moving because it feels like if I don’t do it, nothing will happen. But these big things? Life and death? They are fully out of my control. And sometimes I look around at all the suffering and think to myself, “Where is God? Why isn’t God doing anything!”
But God is doing something. God is working, cosmically, in realms we can’t see, in ways we can’t understand. God is not leaving us here in our grief.
In our creeds we say that after Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, he descended into the dead, into the grave, into Hell. The Lutheran Confessions state, “We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.”
On Holy Saturday many expressions of the church commemorate something known as the Harrowing of Hell. Harrowing has a few definitions. There’s the adjective, calling something a “harrowing” or disturbing, distressing experience. And then there is the verb, “harrowing” with heavy agricultural connotations, you harrow the soil. And so in this sense, Holy Saturday, the Harrowing of Hell, we can understand Jesus as descending into Hell to upend and disturb it. To crash through the gates and conquer it. To bind up sin and death and the devil himself and to say, “No more.” And in this harrowing? Jesus harvested all of the souls trapped there, pulling them up out of the grave.
You can see this famous icon (below) of the Harrowing of Hell. Jesus is reaching out to lift up Adam and Eve from their graves.
(continue reading below)
Jesus does not leave us alone in Hell. Jesus travels there, himself, to break us free, to pull us out. When it feels like God is dead, when it feels like no one is coming for us, when it feels like we are trapped here in this Hell, God is there, working.
So as we wait for the Easter vigil tonight, as we wait for resurrection, as we wait, wait, wait during this epidemic and we feel helpless and we wonder where God is.
God is in Hell.
And They’re coming to get us out.