Hell, Vigils, and Lullabys ~ Br. Chip Noon, Novice

Holy Saturday. Sabbatum Sanctum. The day after Good Friday and the day before Easter.

As children, we were taught that on this day, Jesus went down to Hell. It is in the Creed as “He descended into Hell.” As a child myself, this day was one of sadness, fear, and anticipation.

In Sunday School (where we who did not attend a parochial school were forced to go), the nuns depicted this day to us as the time during which Jesus freed all the righteous people who had lived before his time from bondage in darkness and distance from God. We were told that everyone from Adam and Eve was unable to enter heaven because Jesus had not opened it for them.

You can imagine what went through my mind thinking about this day. The nuns in my parish did not always do a good job of explaining what was going on this day and how it affected people in hell. So we kids made up lots of interesting stories. I always thought back to the hymns that sang about our longing for Christ to save us from our sins and the “sins of the world.”

Still, what were those people doing in hell before Jesus came to free them? We were assured that they did not suffer the same fate as sinners, who were tormented by the devil and the fires of hell. Eternal hellfire. That was a pretty scary concept.

It was only later as a youth that I found out about the “harrowing of hell.” Growing up in rural Maryland, I knew what a harrow was. To me, it was always a disc harrow, a bunch of metal discs in a row used to break up clods of dirt after ploughing. And so Jesus used this instrument to open up the soil of hell to let the dead ascend, finally, into heaven. Of course, this was always done in a dark, murky atmosphere suitable to that part of hell that wasn’t on fire.

Holy Saturday…that was quite a fearsome day!

Back then, in the 1950’s, we either didn’t have Easter Vigil as we do today, or my parents never took us to it. Easter Sunday was always THE day for us and Mass was always THE most important ceremony of the year. So from Good Friday to Easter Sunday was a time of agitation.

Of course, the agitation and anticipation was all about the Easter Baskets with colored hard-boiled eggs, candy, and especially jelly beans. And the fact that the solemnity of Lent was at last gone, and maybe the nuns would let up on us…

What must have been going through the minds of the Apostles and the women disciples? I never heard this discussed growing up, but in my adult life, it became one of the things I thought about on Holy Saturday. We know it as anticipation. They experienced it as the utter destruction of their whole world.

Their Teacher was tortured and died a horrible death on a cross. Now what?

For all of the Apostles but John, there must have been intense shame. They had all deserted their Teacher and his mother and had gone into hiding. Imagine their feelings on this day.

What we know today was all taught to them, so there should have been no surprise. But we can say that from the distance of two millennia and the evidence of the empty tomb. This group of grieving souls had none of that.

“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31

Written many years after Holy Saturday.

Now what?

Although all of this was presented to them by Jesus, they really didn’t know what was happening.

They weren’t anticipating Easter eggs, baskets, jelly beans, the solemn joy of the Easter Sunday Mass.

They were deserted, bereft, scared, ashamed, and deeply sorrowful.

We get some or all of these feelings at times of crisis in our own lives. I’ve had them during and after a crisis, and believe me, the sinking feeling in my stomach is quite real and quite frightening.

But wait. We were told the Gospel stories so that we might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. The disciples thought they had nothing. We have the Word. They had despair. We have triumphant anticipation.

It’s probably a good thing we were never taken to the Vigil. I can’t imagine I’d have done well sitting through all those readings.  Seven readings, six psalms, an Epistle, the Gospel…it just goes on forever, doesn’t it?

“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child.”

Now I know that the Vigil is actually the most calming lullaby God could ever sing to me. It tells our whole story, from the beginning of time to the Resurrection. Everyone is created, everyone goes through bad times, everyone sees glimmers of hope, everyone in some way gets through the troubles, everyone can pray these words from one of those psalms:

O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!

You are clothed with majesty and glory,

robed in light as with a cloak.

Because we know that while now we may shed tears, dawn will bring incomparable gladness.

We have Holy Saturday to teach us how to live through all our times of despair and fear. We have salvation history in all those readings, we have the stories of a small group of terrified disciples who on Sunday will experience that incomparable gladness. We have the anticipation we remember as children and the delight we see in our own children’s eyes on Sunday. And we have the words of John, the disciple who stayed with his Teacher through all the horror and who was told to care for the Blessed Mother:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

We have come through the dark nights of our souls and we will be able, finally to say Alleluia.

Lord, help us to remember that your son suffered, died, and was buried for our sakes. Help us to remember that even as we face crisis and trouble, the next day will bring incomparable gladness if we trust in you. Help us to remember that Easter comes after Holy Saturday.

Amen.

 

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