Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.


Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

Hold on: A reflection for the dark days

Psalm 88: Stark, honest, raw. It joins voices of despair that span place and time. It gives permission to lament, and it carves a space for unresolved sorrow. It resists shallow niceties and bland platitudes.

The time between Good Friday and Easter Day is unresolved time. The Messiah is dead; the curtain is torn (but what does that mean?); God is silent. I wonder how many of us live in this unresolved, painful place, not just this weekend, but through much of the year. How many of us hang between darkness and resolution?

Here is a reflection for all of you who are holding on by your fingertips, as you plummet through this liminal space.

Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:12

An uncertain glance.
A silent tear.
Darkness rises, chokes and blinds.

It is finished,
And you launch into the unknown
Falling through the nothingness of what next?
Into the endless void of where now?

Fear sings her taunts
And Doubt dances on the place you used to stand:
What will catch you?
Who will save you?

In the land of forgetfulness
No memory sustains you
No story reminds you
No music restores you.

Going back is not an option:
That door has closed.
Beasts of regret and fires of what if? lie behind.

But you can go on.

Is there a glimmer in the darkness?
A seed planted but long forgotten?
A fresh shoot of – what?

You wait.
You watch.
You hope.

And then you step forward
Because forward is the only way to go.

Hold on, weary one.
Cling to the echo of a promise you have never understood.
Remember the hope you once passed by.
Believe that beyond what you know, there is a more brilliant future dawning.

Look up.
Look back.
Then travel on.

It’s night time, but morning is coming.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79




St Thomas the Apostle: A meditation for the faithless  

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


You are worried you are faithless
Because questions overwhelm certainty:
Heart-wrenching doubts that threaten to pull you
From what, for one, fleeting moment,
Felt like truth.

Faith seems ungraspable
Slippery as sand through your hands.
You may hold a little, for a time,
And yet when you unwrap your clenched fist
What is left, but mere grains?

Do not worry about your questions:
Hear them
Cherish them
Sing them from the rooftops
Because faith and doubt are dancing partners
And there are greater threats to overcome.

Worry, instead, about your apathy
A spiritual sleepiness
That can’t be bothered to move words to action.

Worry about your shallow fears
Of failure, of imperfection, of humiliation
Which will bolster your ego and cripple your faith.

Worry about the certainty
That slams a door on dialogue
And silences the gentle wooing of the Spirit.

Worry about the damning shame
That shouts YOU ARE NO GOOD
And drowns out Vocation’s voices.

Worry about false security
The pillars of health and wealth that hide your need of faith:
One day, these pillars will crumble.

Worry about the need to control
And loosen your white knuckle hold on life:
Let go before control is snatched from you.

Worry about your worry
Spinning out of control
And refusing to be bound by loving reason.

But never worry about your questions
Never fear your unknowns
Never tame your explorations
Never rest
In your quest for faith.


Losing my religion?

At times I have faced serious, faith-denying doubts. Times of extended sleeplessness and frightened, agonised wrestling with big questions. One of these moments happened soon after I married; another soon after I had children. Both triggered by the uncertainty that comes after a major life change; the burden of new responsibility as my life became intimately entwined with another, and the crushing knowledge that all relationships end in grief. Both times I had to renegotiate my faith, learning to trust God with the lives of these people who are so precious to me.

So I read this blog by Mandy Jackson-Beverly with a good amount of nodding. Mandy’s path is her own, and yet many of us have walked a similar way before, and will do so again.

Many of us know what it is like to be thrown into an abyss of doubt, falling through spiritual nothingness and not knowing who or what will catch us.

Many of us know what it is like to have the scaffold of faith, so carefully built, collapse in an instant.

Many of us know what it is like to live with fear, day after day, that everything we have placed our trust in will turn out to be an elaborate lie and a waste of time.


But are these experiences about losing our faith?

Mandy’s blog is fairly pessimistic, with a glimmer of hope. She talks in terms of growing up and moving on from religion. Something that was so integral to her early life, through an exploration of spirituality that eventually “vanished”, becomes folly in later life.

How many of us feel like we “grow out of” our religion and move on with life?

What if the fears and questions that accelerate our growing agnosticism are not about doubt and loss of faith, but about deepening our experience of and relationship with God?

Once I had kids, I discovered a dark place that lay beyond the realm of my faith and spirituality. A place where I didn’t need God in order to make sense of things. A place where I could find things other than God to explain and give purpose to life. And this was not liberating, but frightening. This was about no longer needing everything that, to this point, I had built my life around. I was dismantling my scaffolding.

It took someone else to turn my fear around. They helped me see that this wasn’t about moving beyond a need for God. It was about finding God at work in new places and new people. In everything that might have replaced God, I found him waiting. I no longer needed the scaffolding I had built. I had found something new.

Perhaps in time this new scaffolding will also need to be taken down, to make way again.

Life takes us to some frightening places. Watching someone we love die is such a place. Mandy is honest about the raw hopelessness of seeing her mum’s suffering and death. And yet, within the darkness of her pain is a faint glimmer of hope. In a brief moment, she “felt something”.

I think that this is how it is. We question, we fear, we worry. And then, in one fleeting, fragile moment, we feel something.

And then it is gone.

But it was definitely there.

What is that “something”? What I do know is that it is special, faith-affirming and life-changing. Those I walk alongside in difficult times often speak of its power. Most of us have a story of the “something” moments.

In all our fear and emptiness, amongst our questions and anxiety, perhaps we can allow our attention to rest on those glimmers of “something”.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12