Scripture: Lamentations 3: 1-9; 19-24
The Scripture from Lamentations reminds us that God’s faihfulnmess embraces all our worst fears and tragedies. Tonight I discuss briefly the early Christian legend that Christ descended to the place of torment, when in the words of the Creeds, “he descended to the dead.” Meanwhile, we wait. Along with those dejected disciples. For tomorrow. Easter, the Day of Resurrection.
Words of consolation
We often use the last part of this evening’s reading at funerals. The beautiful and consoling lines are these. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. They are the basis of the hopeful 20th century hymn “Great is thy faithfulness” by Thomas Chisholm, the tune by William Runyan.
Harrowing of hell
The harrowing of hell: the word ‘harrowing’ means bitter, cruel, or heartrending. The stem word ‘harrow’ has two meanings. To vex or torment, which is related to harrowing. There’s an unrelated (at least, I assume that it’s not related) word harrow used in agriculture: to break up clods of earth with an implement like a very large rake, called a harrow.
The story comes from the phrase, “he descended to the dead” (or to hell) in the Creeds. We find it in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Recall that in John’s Gospel [19: 38-42] it was Nicodemus, not Joseph of Arimathea who arranged Jesus’ burial.
The part of the Gospel of Nicodemus that contains the story of the Harrowing of Hell involves Leucius and Charinus. They are two souls raised from the dead after the crucifixion. Leucius and Charinus tell the Sanhedrin, the Council of the Jewish leadership. the circumstances of the descent of Christ into Hell. Besides Christ, they relate the deliverance of the righteous Old Testament patriarchs.
Lent has been a time of waiting. We have waited, as we prepared for Easter during Holy Week. Waiting. But, not in the listless, zoned-out way like we might wait at the local coffee shop, nor in the anxious, bored way we might wait at the doctor’s office or in traffic. Lent has been active waiting, when we readied ourselves – physically and spiritually – for Holy Week and Easter.
But what about Jesus’ disciples? What did they have to wait for on holy Saturday? Their hopes and dreams had been dashed. Their teacher was dead, executed by the Romans. They weren’t waiting for the Resurrection. In fact, when the women told them about it on Easter morning, they didn’t believe it. It was just too far beyond what they could imagine.
Therefore, what did their future hold? Must they suck up their grief, and go home with their tails between their legs. Utter failures! To face what? The jeers of their relatives and friends. “‘Well, that worked out well for you, didn’t it?” As we wait, we know that the story ended differently for them. Amen.