Last night I attended a lecture at Blackfriars here in Oxford given by Dr Lyra Pitstick from Hope College in Michigan. Her subject was "Christ's Victory over Sin and Death: Interpreting the Icon of Christ's Descent into Hell." Her talk was followed by a lively series of questions and answers.
The icon of the Anastasis - or the Harrowing of Hell - is a mixture of images. Thus there is- Christ's victory over death - He is shown alive. There is His descent to release Adam and Eve and the just from their time of waiting to the resurrection described for them by St Matthew. There is an anticipation of the Final resurecction that awaits us all.
Applying the concept of Lex credendi, lex orandi Dr Pitstick has analysed the scriptural texts and the liturgical texts used both in the east (where the image has remained of greater importance) and the west.
She emphasised that fact that in the image Christ is depicted as alive and active, His dynamic conveyed in vigorous movement and forcefulness of action. If Good Friday is the defeat of Sin and Death, and Easter Day the proclamation to the living, then Holy Saturday is the proclamation to and release of those who slumbered in death in the Limbo of the righteous.
In the west Holy Saturday tends not to have its own images. The Cross predominates, but we have rather lost the medieval tradition of burying the Cross in the Easter Sepulchre - in effect sending its power down to release the dead.
Our understanding is not helped by the current use of the term "Hell" - its philological history reveals that it is whatever is not Heaven - so it can mean Purgatory, Limbo, Sheol or Gehenna.
Dr Pitstick argued that the theology contained in the image is scriptural or of ancient liturgical origin, and that to attribute it to the later, fifth century, Gospel of Nicodemus is to miss its centrality and importance to the Church's teaching.
The rise of the doctrine of Purgatory, whereby the faithful concentrate on those they can pray for, not those beyond our prayerful assistance, if for different reasons, in either Heaven or Hell, may account for the decline of the image in the west. The Harrowing becomes thereby an event in the past that affected the long dead, not the recently departed for whom we feel concern or care. The decline in the use of the image could be associated with this period; what up to the twelfth century was a popular theme in sculpture and painting does then wane as Masses for the dead and pilgrimage devotions increased. The idea that St Thomas Aquinas wrote of our own descents into that world of Hell as his way of urging prayers for the dead was raised - an idea which links the earlier and later emphases. There was also some discussion of the notion that we are called to pray for the demons that they may ultimately be redeemed, and the possibilities of the hope of ultimate universal salvation.
This was a stimulating evening, and provided ideas and images upon which to reflect in Eastertide as well as for next Holy Saturday.