Monday, 27 October 2014

The harrowing of hell

The harrowing of hell
The story so beloved of medieval mystery plays around Christ’s harrowing of hell has a complex and much disputed history. There are two primary interpretations of the spirits in prison: either they are the disembodied spirits of Noah’s contemporaries imprisoned in Hades, who in rabbinic tradition are excluded from resurrection, or they are the fallen angels of Genesis 6.1-6 [the majority view, and one which some rabbinic material alludes to.]
The expansion of the latter suggestion dates back to the Book of the Watchers, a 3rd or 2nd  century BC comprising the first 36 chapters of 1 Enoch 36, embellishing Genesis 6. The tradition includes a punishment through flood for such miscegenation, so it is possible to read it in this way. However, allusions to Christ preaching to those who died in the old dispensation occur in the early 2nd century Shepherd of Hermas, one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers and in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and Odes of Solomon.
Underlying both traditions is the Christological theme of the victory of Christ, and his Lordship over all that is above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth. The detail can be endlessly argued about, though Hades/Sheol is clearly the place of the dead in general rather than a place of final [and often eternal] punishment post-judgement.
In summary, the tradition, carried on widely through the Middle Ages and then falling into disrepute in 16th Protestant Europe, celebrates the power of Christ to save, the comprehensive reach of that salvation, the justice of God’s salvific acts in potentially incorporating all, and the cosmic dimensions of the battle between good and evil. Maybe it is time to recover this celebration for the Saturday of Holy Week, rather than simply going shopping for Easter eggs in a consumerist anticipation of the return of spring!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sharing my body, my soul, my store - a monumental hopeI

There is a monument in the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary [!] at Harlton in Cambridgeshire to a saint of God, Thomas Fryer. The details are easily accessed elsewhere, and there is a picture of the monument below. What particularly caught my eye was the English poem that commends Thomas' piety:

Incloisterd in these piles of stone
The reliques of this Fryer rest,
Whose better part to heaven's gone;
The poore mans bowels were his chest.
And 'mongst these three: grave, heaven, poore,
He shard his corps, his soule, his store.

Holiness is an elusive thing, but I aspire to the values expressed here.

First, I long to be well-prepared for death now, that I may fully live the rest of my life here on earth, in gladness, in gratitude, alert for the moments, opportunities and revelations of each day. I long, in other words, to 'share my corpse with the grave.' I wish to be reconciled to Sister Death [St Francis' words] and to know that death no longer has any sting for those who are in Christ.

Then, I long to be heavenward bound. I do not like the inherent dualism implied by the use of the word 'soul' here, but the Fryers were recusants, Catholics and crypto-Catholics in a Protestant Elizabethan England. The language is the language of medieval theology, but there is a deep truth embedded in it, that the 'true and complete me' that I am is designed for eternity with God. I will find no rest until I find my rest in him. So, as I explored at great length in my PhD, my life on this earth is exilic, and the OT exilic writers deserve much more attention as spiritual guides in today's church, often far too earth-bound.

Finally, I long to share my store with the poor, perhaps the simplest, clearest and most challenging of all. I will die without any hard work on my part. I will inherit heavenly life through Christ's hard work on the cross. But for now, my work is to share all that I am, and all that I have. Today, then, I pray for the grace to be open, hospitable, aware and generous with those who by accident of life and circumstance, are today's neighbours. May the same be true for you.