|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
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.
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.