The Harrowing of Hell

This is my favorite icon of the resurrection, known as the Harrowing of Hell. You can find versions of it in many Orthodox Christian Parishes. I just love it when I walk into a worship space and see it prominently displayed or painted on a wall. It lifts my heart so much!

Lets look at the elements of it that are common to almost every version I've seen. By the way, these common elements make up a cannon or a rule for specific events in the life of Christ and the saints being depicted in various images. So.. as a rule, this image depicting the Harrowing of Hell contain the following:

First, Jesus is in that oblong 'full body halo' known as a mandorla. It is the intersection of two circles, namely heaven and earth in this case. It is distinctly feminine which is appropriate because God became flesh in the womb of Mary. Heaven and Earth were married in the womb of Mary which is the ultimate cosmic bridal chamber. We still have not fully comprehended the seismic ripples that occurred in the time fabric of the universe because of her simple 'yes' to the archangel Gabriel. It is perhaps beyond us to grasp and rightly called a mystery.

Next lets look at what Jesus is doing. He is literally razing hell. He has torn the doors off the abode of death and the devil and is using them as an elevator of sorts to rise up out of there. Notice the debris underneath and the devil or perhaps death himself bound up in the midst of the destruction.

Lastly, I love how this image pictures Jesus leading the captives of death and hell out of their prison. You can see many of the Old Testament Saints including King David on the left side of the picture. Of course Jesus is also pulling Adam and Eve out of the grave too, representing the rest of us.

Could any image be more victorious? Could any image portray the victim becoming the victor better than this? I for one have never seen a single image represent victory over death better. I LOVE IT!

My friend Seb O'Donal posted on the immensity of this cataclysmic event for the cosmos. I'm loving his journal more and more and swear we must be related or perhaps twins separated at birth or something. I guess that since we both are in recovery and both love Theology of the Body we have a lot in common. 

Below are all the quotes and their sources from the back of the Visio Divina card:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life
-Byzantine Paschal Hymn

The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
-Matthew 27:51-53

I am the first and the last, the one who lives. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.
-Revelation 1:17-18

I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?
-John 11: 25-26

Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.
-Hebrews 2:14-15

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.
-Psalm 23:4

 This is one of my favorite Seb O'Donal Quotes about the resurrection from one of his posts:

Jesus redefined death. When the enemy swallowed the bait and Christ razed hell, He metaphysically transformed death into a passageway, a birth canal to a new life untouchable by death. If we so choose, death can now be nothing more than a door into that cosmically shifted realm of the undying.

Jesus wept because so few would dare enter that cosmic passageway in, with and through him. All are invited yet few respond because of the distrust of God sewn by the enemy into the hearts of humanity. Christ forbids no one to follow him through the portal to life eternal. Most of us simply don’t dare trust him enough to do so… and that is why Jesus wept.

Sebastian O’Donal - Lazarus Sunday, 2023

Lastly, have you ever wondered what Jesus might have preached to the souls in hell (aka 'the spirits in prison) that St. Peter spoke of in his first letter (1 Peter 3: 18-22)? Well if you have, you aren't alone.

I'd like to share a sermon that is part of the readings for Holy Saturday... you know, that day between Good Friday and Easter? This sermon is most likely from the first few centuries of the Church and we don't know who wrote it. The homilist imaginatively proposes some of the things Jesus may have preached to those souls and that he whispers to any of us caught in our own personal hell.

From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday
The Lord's descent into the underworld

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

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.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

(The homily was based on the first letter from St. Peter chapter 3:18-22:
For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.)

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