Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Harrowing of Hell

A good friend of mine is a cloistered monk of an Eastern Rite Byzantine Monastery, and every few months, they send out a periodical with a few theological writings or meditations and I was recently taken with a particular piece that was done on a lost piece of art and a very infrequently taught piece of tradition and scripture.  I will attempt to summarize it here for you, for you will quite likely find it intriguing and poignant for today.

One of the most uncommon Resurrection icons is that of the "Harrowing of Hell".  Though this has been commonly held by Christians since very early times, it is only mentioned in scripture vaguely (cf. Eph 4:9, I Pet. 3: 18-20).  Though this would have been a common theme in Medieval times, now it is only occasionally encountered by students of literature or historians of art.

The rest of us may be surprised at how separated we are from this teaching and especially the art.  When the definition of the word "harrow" is looked up, you will find that farming is the central theme of the word.  It means to break up the soil, pulverize, and level the ground after plowing.  Basically it give the idea of breaking up large clods of soil, or in a like manner, to lacerate, torment, or harass.  The Hell being referenced here would not be the place of eternal damnation, but the place to which Christ descended in the Apostles Creed.  It would be the abode of the dead, referred to by Jesus in the Gospels (cf. Mt. 25:10, Lk. 13:29; 14:15; 16:22; 23:43).  This would have been known to the Greeks as Hades, and to scholastic theologians as the "Limbo of the Fathers".

God created man for happiness with Himself and placed him in Paradise, but through sin, man chose another option and broke that relationship, subjecting all descendants to the death of sin- even the just would be subjected to it and be deprived of the vision of God.  They would remain imprisoned until the Savior would come to release them.

Through the Precious Blood of the Cross, Christ Jesus died so that the keys to the realm of death would be stolen, the sting of death would be vanquished, and the bars of Hell would be shattered.   As the soil may be harrowed to allow for new growth, Christ has Harrowed Hell so that life might spring forth.  Death would no longer have power over mankind.

In the picture above known as "The Harrowing of Hell", it represents the effect of Christ rather than the event.  Christ is portrayed not coming from the tomb, as we are used to in Resurrection art, but Himself raising us from the dead.  Standing victorious on the demolished gates of Hell, he is forcefully pulling Adam and Even from their tombs.  Prophets, Patriarchs, kings, and Righteous men of old stand in awe, witnessing His saving power.  Scattered below him are the broken locks and bolts- He has destroyed our prison of sin and death, and we have been set free.

The grip of this world and its securlarist movement seems powerful and almost an unstoppable force, but what is not often remembered by Catholics today is that what Christ did once, he does for all time.  Through the Sacraments and Spiritual Weapons, such as the Rosary, we invoke Christ's power to "Harrow" that which threatens us.  He tramples and pulverizes the soil ahead of us so that the seeds of the Springtime may be planted.  We only need to remember this when faced with uneven turf ahead, or rocks in the soil, or underbrush in the way.  Christ can and will Harrow the death that faces us eye to eye so that we need not fear.  Ploughshares in this sense are still the weapon they were fashioned from- to destroy the gates of Hell and to shatter death, so that Christ may Reign!

+Ad Majoram Dei Gloriam!

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