#CCLent17 / Day 40 / April 15 / ‘The Harrowing of Hell’

 This Eastern Orthodox icon of the Resurrection is one I highlight every Easter. It’s technically called ‘The Harrowing of Hell,’ and it shows Adam and Eve being pulled out of the tomb by the wrists as Christ “tramples down death by death.”

Many commentators relate it to the mysterious verse in 1 Peter 3:18f. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…” Scott Cairns writes a poem about the icon that helps elaborate. You might say that Christ is not idle on Holy Saturday! (NOTE: The Orthodox here are referring to what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “He descended into Hades” or the place of the dead.)


Into Hell and Out Again

In this Byzantine-inflected icon
of the Resurrection, the murdered Christ
is still in Hell, the chief issue being

that this Resurrection is of our agéd parents
and all their poor relations. We find Him
as we might expect, radiant

in spotless white, standing straight, but leaning back
against the weight of lifting them.
Long tradition has Him standing upon two

crossed boards—the very gates of Hell—and He,
by standing thus, has undone Death by Death,
we say, and saying nearly apprehend.

This all — the lifting of the dead, the death
of Death, His stretching here between two realms —
looks like real work, necessary, not pleasant

but almost matter-of-factly undertaken.
We witness here a little sheepishness
which death has taught both Mom and Dad; they reach

Christ’s proffered hands and everything
about their affect speaks centuries of drowning
in that abysmal crypt. Are they quite awake?

Odd — motionless as they must be
in our tableau outside of Time, we almost see
their hurry. And isn’t that their shame

which falls away? They have yet to enter bliss,
but they rise up, eager and a little shocked
to find their bodies capable of this.


Scott Cairns is an Orthodox Christian poet and teacher, author of Slow Pilgrim, The Collected Poems.

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