It was on a Holy Saturday about ten years back that I first saw an image of the “Harrowing of Hell,” a depiction of Christ entering the realm of the dead and releasing the souls imprisoned there (1 Peter 3:19).
We proclaim it in the Apostle’s Creed: Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell,” but I’d never imagined that scene.
I pictured who had been there, imprisoned by death, waiting for release by Him who holds the keys to life and death. I focused primarily on our first parents, Adam and Eve, they who had run from him in the garden of Eden, covered with the skins of animals: they who were the first to live (as you and I now do) the hard-yet-awesome truth that failing to trust God’s happy design for us results in pain and sadness. They who had lived longest the truth that indeed they were (and are) eternal souls.
What joy to see that Adam’s sin is a “happy fault” revealing a truth greater we would have ever known without falling. God really IS love. A wounded hand grasps Adam’s. Eve’s. Wounded eyes of love meet theirs. God bore wounds of sin and pain of death with us. If the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed.
A few years after that, I saw the image as invitation to harrow my own hell: to release the people I’d been holding in the prison of my heart.
I am still discovering how crowded is that jail. But the more I meet in memory those whose sins I’m still resenting, the more room there is for Christ. The more I know the prayer he taught us is the truer-than-true-truth: we must forgive those who trespass against us. That’s impossible without His grace, which keeps us humbly dependent on the Giver of all good things.
Our sins of the tongue reveal who most needs releasing from the hell within our hearts.
The letter of James may have more instruction on the sins of the tongue than any other New Testament book, and it can be fruitful to read it in one sitting. One verse, it seems to me, is linked quite clearly with the truth that the sins of the tongue originate in the heart. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” the author marvels as he pleads:
This need not be so, my brothers. Does a spring gush forth from its opening both pure and brackish water?
Well, a spring doesn’t, but the case of a human being, I’ll submit that yes: while we walk with Christ but are not fully perfected, our hearts are not yet pure and we sometimes pour forth the sweet words of the spirit and other times the brackish spew of our own selfish motives and unforgiveness.
But this need not be so.
Tomorrow as we celebrate Christ risen from the tomb, let’s pursue our Savior with renewed fervor for His forgiving heart. Let us speak to all those imprisoned (like Lazarus) in the tombs within our hearts: He is risen! Come out!
In the measure we receive grace to forgive as we are forgiven, the waters of our hearts are purified, and we do not sin with our speech. By the wounds of Jesus Christ, that part of our hell has been harrowed.
Reads & Other Seeds
The first version of this post appeared on Sparrowfare on April 15, 2017. Related post: What Do You Want Your Pain to Become? How Forgiveness Releases Prisoners.
Two songs just added to Sparrowfare’s Spotify playlist for Holy Week: Andrew Peterson’s “God Rested” and Curtis Stephan’s “Pastures of the Lord.”
Audrey Assad’s “Humble” and “Fortunate Fall” are also on this playlist. Fortunate Fall album is a wonderful meditation on the “Happy Fault” that won for us so great a Redeemer. Listen to the title track and marvel at the mystery.
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Fra Angelico’s depiction of The Harrowing of Hell courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Harrowing of Hades fresco © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0.