The Harrowing of Hell — 14 May 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
14 May 2023 — Sixth Sunday in the Season of Easter
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

The Harrowing of Hell

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Matthew 27:45-54 

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 


In orthodox iconography, the resurrection is often depicted not by an empty tomb, white-robbed figures proclaiming “He is not here, he is arisen.” Most often the icon chosen to represent Easter is the Harrowing of Hell—Christ standing on the broken doors of hell, pulling up heroes and anti-heroes of the faith alike. Adam and Eve, and David, that philandering coward, and Solomon, the hoarding womanizer. But also Abel, the Bible’s first martyr, and John the Baptist, the first martyr of the New Testament. Harrowing means robbing, and whenever I see this icon, I am always struck by the broken locks and chains that litter the image. Jesus is the one who breaks the locks, and rends the chains that bind us—all our obligations and regrets, words and actions spoken and done in haste—he leaves a pile of rubble when he sets us free.

Matthew undertakes a colossal task in his gospel: he sets out to record events fifty to a hundred years in the past, with very few primary sources to help him. He intends to help a Jewish Christian audience makes sense of the fact that a movement that began with an itinerant Jewish preacher spread like wildfire among Gentiles. And he wants to be sure that blossoming theology of the church would be clearly represented in the story. When it comes to the Gentiles, the Hebrew word that means “the nations,” Matthew strategically places non-Jews throughout his gospel and puts on their lips confessions of faith. The Magi call him “king” and this centurion calls him “God’s Son,” a theological confessions and a subversive message against the Emperors of Rome who would take that title for themselves. But when it comes to the beliefs of the early church, Matthew gets a little clunky.

In today’s gospel, Matthew is trying to incorporate the harrowing of hell, which, as far as theology goes, was probably a big deal in the first century or so, but might have been declining in prominence even as Matthew pens his gospel. The question is about faithful Jewish martyrs who fell to Rome before Jesus. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it this way in their book The Last Week: “Since God’s purpose was to establish a just and nonviolent earth, it had to start with the past before it could deal with the future. There was already a great backlog of injustice that had to be redeemed, a great crowd of martyrs who had to be vindicated.” Thus, Matthew, following a very early tradition, claims that Jesus descended to hell, proclaimed liberation, and was resurrected “as the head of the holy ones.” 

Unfortunately, when Matthew tries to stick it into his carefully constructed account, it gets…clunky. One cumbersome thing is that the dead appear to be raised on Friday, when Jesus dies and the earth quakes, but they don’t start letting folks know what has happened until after Sunday morning. Like some of my sermons, Matthew seems to have lost his thesis here, mired in theological questions he can’t figure out how to articulate, like: Is it Jesus’s death that raises them, or his resurrection? Does their resurrection not really count until Jesus is raised? And, also, how to they get from earth to heaven, if they’re just hanging around here appearing to folks? Poor Matthew, it is like on Palm Sunday, where he has Jesus ride on a donkey and her colt—a truly ridiculous spectacle, if you think about it.

But all the other gospel writers have just a Saturday of silence, lest they unglue the cross from the empty tomb. But that messy middle, Matthew can’t let it go. And I am so glad, because that messy middle is pretty much life on earth. Unshakable illness, and whatever you talked about with your therapist last week, and the unethical bologna of institutions that reside in ivory towers. We live in that moment between what God has already done for us, and its completion.

We live in the messy middle. We are bound by sin that looks most often like structural racism and systemic oppression. It looks like homophobia, and it loves to say, “not in my backyard” to those most in need. It looks like the pain we cause each other and the way power stomps all over the most vulnerable. It looks like all the words we wish we can take back, and every single thing left unsaid. We live in a messy middle where evil takes what it wants without regard for the future. Its locks are named Fear and Complacency. And deep in the pit of this hell, the Great Accuser is telling each of us that God is angry with us, that it is God who has bound us here. 

And so, I am so glad that Matthew doesn’t pick silence, I am so glad that he enters the fray of the messy middle between cross and empty tomb, Because Jesus comes into that messy middle to proclaim liberation and release. I return again and again to the words of an obscure theologian, Bill Williams who writes in his book Naked Before God: the Return of a Broken Disciple, “This is the truth: jesus [sic] came to fetch us. We are the lost sheep, the prodigal [children], the scattered chicks, the lost coins.” It isn’t just to the long-ago dead that Jesus comes to proclaim release, but he comes even today that we might be set free. Jesus comes every day into our messy lives not to condemn us, or mock us or leave us behind, but to fetch us, to proclaim to us freedom, and to break every chain.

I love how the pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi puts it in her poem “Saturday:” It’s Saturday and

…Jesus is preaching to the dead,
and telling them to be ready
for his well-planned prison break,
even the guy with bigger barns,
the woman whose oil burned out
at the gate of joy,
and he just catches Judas' eye.
It's never a detour
when Jesus goes to hell,
and, if Easter is really every Sunday,
Saturdays always find Jesus
visiting you, me and those dear to us
who are lost in hell,
and, if we can't find our keys,
gives us a lift.

At our best, I hope, our weekly proclamation in this place and at this time in the midst of our messy lives is a ride out of a hell on a millenia-long parade with Jesus at its head. That the water poured over the baptized is a key that opens locks. That the music we sing shakes the earth enough to raise it. Beloved of God, should you find yourself walking through hell, or just one hell of a mess, I pray that my words this morning sound to your ears like chains breaking; like doors coming off their hinges; like a voice that calls you out into a new day.