One of the observances for Holy Saturday is the harrowing of hell, that point in the creed where it says, “He descended to the dead” – descensus Christi ad inferos, or “descended to hell” – descensus ad inferna.
Between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus does battle with the powers binding humanity and all of creation, breaks down the doors of hell, binds the strongman, and releases the captives (Adam, Eve, and all the followers of God who lived before Jesus).
In one description of the battle, Death/Satan swallows Jesus after his death on the cross, like a fish swallowing bait, thinking Jesus is just a human, and realizes too late that he swallowed the hook, God.
Death is destroyed by Life from the inside out.
In the icon, you will notice that Jesus is grasping the wrist of Adam–it is by Grace alone we are saved, not our own ability to hold on to God.
I find the harrowing of hell to be the most hopeful part of the Triduum, and the least talked about. Here is where we catch a glimpse of the new reality we are living in and living toward every day: Death is vanquished and all the powers of injustice and violence are defeated.
All that is death-dealing is bound. All captives are released to Life.
As we remember Christ’s work on our behalf today, may it make our Easter Proclamation all the more resounding.
If you are looking for music for the harrowing of hell, Dead Can Dance’s Host of Seraphim works well, with the haunting vocals of Lisa Gerard (known best for her work on the soundtrack of Gladiator).