Tonight is the final day of our triduum which we celebrate through the liturgy of Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil, the mother of all liturgies, is the most beautiful liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church.
We have been used to the image of the empty tomb during Easter season. This is one of the most popular symbols of resurrection for us raised in Western Christianity. In this blog, I want to reflect on another symbol for Easter Vigil which may not be familiar to us. I want to reflect on an icon more popular in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This is the icon of Harrowing of Hell. Although this icon is not popular today, the message of this icon was commonly proclaimed in the ancient and medieval period of Western Christianity by many church fathers like Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and many others. Harrowing is an old English word which means harvesting. Thus, we can also call this icon as the harvesting of souls in hell.
The icon shows the events between Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. We always recite in the creed every Sunday mass that after Jesus died on the cross “he descended into hell”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14) [#636]. In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him [#637].
In the icon we see Jesus standing on the broken gate of hell. Hell is the dark pit at the bottom of the icon. In some icons, we can even see angels binding Satan in hell. Then we see Jesus pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths; imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe. On both sides of the icon are figures from the Old Testament like Abel, King David, Moses, prophets and many others waiting for Jesus to rescue them from hell. We can also see broken locks and keys used by Jesus to unlock the tombs of those souls living in hell.
What does this icon convey for us on Easter Vigil? Christ never rises alone; he brings the rest of us. Resurrection is not just Christ’s but also ours. This is beautifully expressed in an ancient homily, of unknown authorship, usually entitled The Lord’s Descent into the Underworld that is the second reading at Office of Readings on Holy Saturday .
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
Indeed, Jesus wants to raise us into new life but maybe the problem is we don’t want to be raised up. Or we allow people to continue to pull us down to the pit of hell for their own interests. We have created many tombs in our lives. We have allowed many things in our lives which kills our spirit, hardens our hearts and freezes our will so we can remain dead. We have chosen this part—to remain in hell and remain dead. The saddest thing is we have become comfortable in hell. We have become used to hell.
Tonight, the most important of all nights for our faith, we call upon Jesus to open and break the gates of hell in our lives. Let us ask Jesus to “harvest” our souls from the shackles of hell we have made for ourselves. Let us call Jesus who has risen to arouse us out of the tomb of our selfishness, apathy, pride, insecurity, fear, anxiety, and many other death-giving and pathetic mindsets. Like Jesus may we rise up to start anew and recreate our lives and our world under the blessings of God’s abundant grace.
This Easter, we should not just look up to Jesus and proclaim that he has risen. On Easter, we also proclaim to ourselves: I am resurrection, you are resurrection, and we are resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We are redeemed by Christ from death and sin. This is our deepest and truest identity as a people. We celebrate and proclaim this solemn truth in the Easter Vigil through the renewal of our baptism.
So now, let us rise up and go, live out our liberation!
Happy Easter to you all!