The Harrowing of Hell - Robert Fielding

Duration: 5'30"
Ensemble: double SATB unaccimpanied
Grading: Difficult
CMP410 Full score £3.50

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I was attracted to this text by reading an article by The Revd Canon William Perry SSC, priest in charge at Holy Trinity Church Millbrook in Southampton, UK. Father William’s Letter was published in the parish magazine for April 2016 and was entitled The Harrowing of Hell. It follows in full with his kind permission:

'He descended into hell.' So says the Apostles' Creed, in a phrase which is seldom much explored - the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion just state baldly, with no explanation: 'As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell'.

This refers to the tradition, dating from the very earliest times of the Church, that after his death upon the cross, Christ went to the souls of the dead, who had been unable to enter Heaven until the general salvation of mankind had been brought about. Christ defeats the powers of death and evil, and brings out from Hell the souls of the Old Testament Patriarchs, from Adam onwards, as well as of all righteous men and women - pagans as well as Israelites - in an event known as 'the Harrowing of Hell'. It is not entirely clear whether this belief is grounded in Scripture, though 1 Peter 3.18, where the Apostle says that after Christ died 'he went and preached to the spirits in prison', is often mentioned in support of it. But the Harrowing of Hell expresses in allegorical terms a very profound understanding of the mystery of salvation. It makes the point that the redeemed are the whole human race, and that the power of Jesus is not confined either by space or by time - people of every place and every age are redeemed by the Cross.

If the Passion and resurrection could save Adam and raise him to heaven, even umpteen thousand years after his death, so can they do the same for us, two thousand years later.

It is the Eastern Church which has explored most fully the meaning of Christ’s descent into Hell. The following is an ancient hymn of the Syriac Church for Holy Saturday.

I stretched out my hands and offered myself to the lord.
The stretching out of my hands is the sign of my offering,
The stretching out on the wood
Where the Just One was hanged, there by the roadside.

Hell saw me and was vanquished.
Death let me depart, and many with me.
I was gall and vinegar to it.
I descended with it to the depths of hell.

Death could not bear my face.
I made the dead an assembly of the living.
I spoke to them with living lips
So that my word should not be in vain.
They ran towards me, the dead.
They cried out, ‘Take pity on us, O Son of God!
Deliver us out of the darkness that fetters us.
Open the gate for us that we may go out with you.
We see that death has no hold on you.
Deliver us also, for you are our Saviour!’

And I heard their voices and I traced my name on their heads.
So they are free and they belong to me. Alleluia!

Ode 42 from The Odes and Psalms of Solomon, a collection of anonymous hymns from the 1st to 3rd centuries. Original texts in Syriac/Aramaic. After what seems to be a liturgical introduction, Christ speaks from verse 2.