Friday, March 17, 2017

Meditation in Lent: The Gospel of Nicodemus

A medieval depiction of the harrowing of hell. In many early
artworks, Jesus rescues the souls from the jaws of a demon.
In the apocryphal book of Nicodemus, the source of many
medieval re-tellings of the harrowing, the gates are iron
and brass.
I'm preparing a short presentation on an assignment I sometimes give students on the medieval York mystery play, "The Harrowing of Hell." Students are asked to come up with a modern setting for the play, to cast it with contemporary actors (money is no object in your imagination!), and do a table read.

In the course of revisiting the source material for the play, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, I uncovered some fertile ground for Lenten reflection, and I'll offer them today and on coming Fridays.

When Pope Benedict talked about what the Church has to offer, he often referred to its beauty--its architecture and visual arts, its vestments, its music. But the Gospel of Nicodemus reminds us of the beauty of the Church's imagination, which reflects the yearning of souls toward a more perfect understanding of Christ's love and mercy.

The Gospel of Nicodemus is a mash-up of two older texts, the Acts of Pilate and Christ's Descent into Hell, written sometime in the 4th century. It was a popular work; over 450 copies have been found. And indications are that Holy Saturday liturgies drew on Nicodemus's Descent story, which fleshes out what happened when Jesus descended to the dead.

For English speakers, the Descent is known as the "harrowing" of hell. To harrow means to plow or cultivate. And it also means to torment or terrorize. Jesus, in the story from Nicodemus, is doing both: He is re-cultivating hell, "harvesting" the souls of his beloved. In the process, he terrorizes the demons who rule Hell. Nicodemus's descent story (and the medieval plays based on the work) is a beautiful and vivid metaphor for Christ's limiting the powers of sin and death through his sacrifice and resurrection.

It's easy to see why medieval playwrights found Nicodemus such a rich source for their harrowing of hell plays. It is full of dialogue between Satan, prince of Hell, and Beelzebub, prince of evil and darkness, and between the demons and Jesus. It includes the souls of Adam, Simeon, John the Baptist, and the prophets as a kind of chorus. 

In Nicodemus 15, Satan brags (stupidly, as everyone in the audience would have known) that Jesus is dying and that he deserves the credit (Nicodemus 15:8-10): 
I tempted him and stirred up my old people the Jews with zeal and anger against him. I sharpened the spear for his suffering; I mixed the gall and vinegar, and commanded that he should drink it; I prepared the cross to crucify him, and the nails to pierce through his hands and feet; and now his death is near at hand, I will bring him hither, subject both to thee and me.
Just how deeply this speech from Nicodemus has sunk into the collective Western consciousness can be seen in lines from the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil”: “And I was 'round when Jesus Christ / Had his moment of doubt and pain / Made damn sure that Pilate / Washed his hands and sealed his fate.”

Beelzebub, the smarter of the two demons, is enraged by what Satan tells him. He replies to his fellow demon, “Depart from me, and begone out of my habitations; if thou art a powerful warrior, fight with the King of Glory” (Nicodemus 16:2). Then, turning to his hellish minions, Beelzebub orders them to “shut the brass gates of cruelty, and make them fast with iron bars, and fight courageously, lest we be taken captives” (Nicodemus 16:4).

But while hell and sin are powerful, we know (and the medieval audience would have known) that the demons are doomed. Christ bursts the gates of hell with his voice alone: “There was a voice as of thunder and the rushing of winds, saying, ‘Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in' " (Nicodemus 16:1. 

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that my students envisioned Russell Crowe in the role of Jesus as a warrior-king in their version of “The Harrowing of Hell.” 

But Nicodemus inverts the medieval notion of a warrior-king on its head. Instead of coming for blood, the first miracle Christ performs after his death is to arrive in love and mercy to rescue the souls of his beloved—Adam, Simon, David, and the prophets. If there is a battle here, it is bloodless. Not a blow is landed nor the hair of the souls trapped in hell harmed. The old order merely changes, instantaneously and permanently. Jesus thinks it, and it is so.

Beelzebub retains control of the kingdom of hell, but Satan is inevitably weakened. The demon who engineered Jesus’s death cannot win because he has loosed the power of the (soon-to-be) risen Christ in the world. By his actions, Satan has made Jesus more powerful and engineered his own diminution of power. 

It is one thing to say that Christ conquered sin and death, but to read the details in Nicodemus (or to watch a play based on that story, full of dramatic and comic possibilities) would certainly have brought this story to life for the faithful waiting for the Resurrection on Easter.

Next Friday: Nicodemus and the souls in Hell.
UPDATE: Perhaps parts I and II can come at another time. I encourage people who are interested to check out Nicodemus, though. A blessed Lent and Easter.


  1. What a great idea to have your students cast the story as a movie! I would have Chris Hemsworth as Jesus (he plays Thor in the movies) and Tom Hiddleston can be Satan (he plays Loki, Thor's evil brother) :)

    The harrowing of Hell and the whole Holy Saturday stiff is so interesting. It really seems to touch people and there's some interesting theology from Hans Urs von Balthasar. But I have to admit I don't like it because there's nothing in the canon to support it. Jesus tells the thief on the cross "today you will be with me in paradise" so that sounds like an express elevator to heaven, no stops on the way.

    1. "today you will be with me in paradise" so that sounds like an express elevator to heaven, no stops on the way.

      You are thinking about time in temporal terms. But there is a great tradition of Christian liturgy which views all the events of salvation history as happening TODAY, the eternal TODAY beyond time and space.

      For example the Great Blessing of Waters in the Byzantine Tradition on Theophany (our Epiphany) celebrates the Baptism of Jesus as having permanent effects by repeating Today again and again in its invocations.

      Your express elevator reminded me of Issac Asimov's science fiction the Foundation Trilogy. There was an elevator to the UpWhen which permitted time travel.

    2. I like time-travel. One of my favorite books is Timeline by Michael Crichton.

  2. Wellll, I would not sell the Gospel of Nicodemus as Scripture, but as Scripture-inspired art and interesting as a bit of early medieval/gothic literature. If we can let Carravagio imagine the moment when Peter recognizes Jesus, why can't we let the authors of Nicodemus and the later plays that were based on it imagine what Jesus was doing in hell? There's nothing in there that subverts dogma in the canon.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as Satan because the students saw him as big and blustery (and slightly stupid). Russell Crowe seemed to be the muscular Jesus the play called for, plus the students said an English accent would make him sound smarter. Sigh.

    1. Arnold :)

      I understand that it's tradition and there's nothing wrong with speculating about stuff. Balthasar wrote about that and it's in the creed. But there was a lot of negative reaction to the idea of Jesus going to hell... "Did Jesus Spend Saturday in Hell?" ...

      Maybe he didn't go anywhere but stayed in his tomb? ... "Saturday Night in the Tomb" by William Coleman

      I like to imagine Him dancing there,
      testing his limbs' limits once more, fitting
      back into his body the way we might
      slip back again into a forgotten
      favorite shirt crumpled in the closet,
      finding ourselves wrapped in an old love's
      scent and remembering the moonflowers
      opening in our gaze, steadying
      for another long, glorious night of worship.
      That's the God I believe in—the one
      who can't wait to roll back the rock, leave nothing
      behind, make an appearance everywhere,
      yet who still loves these nights alone, the cool
      darkness of His room, that sweet, solitary
      music that keeps Him humming long after the dying's done.

  3. Jean, that's a neat assignment idea. I hadn't known about the Gospel of Nicodemus before; but I like your description of it as "scripture-inspired art". The Harrowing of Hell makes me think of the reading for Holy Saturday from the office of readings:

    "Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son.
    The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

    ‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise."

    This is from an ancient anonymous homily. I have always thought of the "descent into hell" in the Apostles' Creed as a metaphor for the inclusion of those who lived before the time of Christ in the plan of salvation. In the Gospel account of the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah are in glory with Christ, that would seem to point, as Jack said, to salvation happening TODAY.

    1. The liturgy you offer echoes a lot of the imagery in Nicodemus (though Nicodemus includes a lot of of Scriptural imagery; he doesn't invent anything out of whole cloth). Hope to talk about that in another post.

      Not sure how Holy Saturday is handled in other parishes. Does anyone have a specific liturgy for that day?

      The local church holds a vigil from after Good Friday to the beginning of the Easter Vigil (there is a sign up sheet for the hours you want to cover).

      There were special liturgies specifically for Holy Saturday that revolved around Christ's Descent in earlier centuries.

    2. Our parish does Holy Saturday pretty much the same as yours does. I'm thinking monastic communities such as the Benedictines may have special liturgies.

    3. The Orthodox Byzantine tradition celebrates Holy Saturday with a liturgy in the morning that consists of Vespers, and Office of 12 Readings, and the Divine Liturgy. It is very much like our Liturgy was before the Holy Week reforms in the 1950’s when we moved the service to the evening (and then changed it even more after Vatican II)

      The Orthodox celebrate their Easter with a service beginning at Midnight combining Matins with the Divine Liturgy. It begins with a procession around the church bringing the book of Gospels into the church for the reading of the Gospel of the Resurrections.

      This is followed by Matins which is truly a joyous service of morning prayer (not a service of lessons like in the old Roman rite since that has already been done on Holy Saturday morning). A key feature is a beautiful hymn to the resurrection that has all the exuberance of our paschal proclamation. All the antiphons and hymns are built around the nine odes (canticles from the Old and New Testament). These are a feature of every morning prayer and include the Canticle of the Moses, the Canticle of the Three Children, The Canticle of Zachary, and the Magnificat.

      They do not have a Divine Liturgy later on in the day so you have to get up at Midnight to go to church on Easter! Remember the Eastern tradition preserved by the Orthodox is that there can be only one Divine Liturgy on a given day at a given altar!

      Baptisms are not done on Holy Saturday or Easter. They are done on Sundays. They have many converts like we have. Some are baptized, some are received after Chrismation (e.g. Roman Catholics).

      The Orthodox celebration on Holy Saturday is a celebration of the Great Sabbath, the great rest of Jesus after his victory on Good Friday (and his harrowing of Hell?).

      I have gone to this service before and I am thinking of going to it this Holy Saturday at my local Orthodox parish since our calendars coincide.

      I have the texts of the Offices for that day and all holy week. I will examine them and see what role is played in them, if any, by the harrowing of hell.

      I may make a post probably sometime before the beginning of Holy Week, like the Friday before Palm Sunday if there is a lot of interest in Holy Saturday in general. Or maybe after Jean completes her series if the Orthodox have a lot about the harrowing of Hell.

  4. Jack, I read Asimov's "The End of Eternity", or as much as I could stand of it. It reminds me of the tv series "Timeless" which has been on lately. It's like watching a train wreck, people jacking with time, changing history and erasing the very existence of some people (that would be way too much of a temptation). But I will probably watch more of it if it is renewed.

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