St Alban’s Episcopal Church
Bolivar, Missouri
Tuesday, April 19, 2022
About that Easter homily of St John Chrysostom

The Harrowing of Hell
If you grew up with the Apostle’s Creed, (composed as a baptismal creed, and written earlier than the Nicene Creed which we use in worship), you will have heard this phrase: “He descended to the dead…” It might not mean much to you, but it was a very important part of the early Christian proclamation. For the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the resurrection, which so influenced British Christianity, and therefore Episcopalian faith, it helps to explain our optimism – and our refusal to freak out about whether someone is “going to hell.”
The event of the Resurrection story described what the risen Christ was doing on Holy Saturday, when his body lay in the tomb.
1 Peter 4:6 says that “good tidings were proclaimed to the dead.”
And it figures prominently in the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom, traditionally preached that night at the Great Vigil of Easter. It is sometimes called, “the harrowing of hell.” – “Harrow”, of course, is a good English word describing the breaking up of earth into clods. It also can mean, “to cause distress to” someone. And that, of course, is what St John Chrysostom in this sermon, and in others, so memorably recounts.
The early Church was convinced that the fall of Adam was undone; that Jesus the Lord was the new Adam – that nothing at all was left unredeemed.
You hear that in our Easter hymns, too – There is now no reason for anyone, anywhere to fear death; salvation has happened. Hell is not a threat to unbelievers nor is eternal life only for those who trust Christ – It just IS. Resurrection and Life IS. That is the fate of humanity and of creation itself: Life.
Of course it is wonderful to proclaim it, to know it, to enjoy it, to celebrate it right here and right now; it is joy and hope. But it can never be used as a threat. Or a way to manipulate others to believe, “or else.” There is now no “or else.”
Many paintings – and even seals – show Christ breaking down the gates of hell, or opening the graves, to pull Adam and Eve and all others up out of the dead – out of “hell.”

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and in many Episcopal churches as well, only one homily is ever preached at the Easter Vigil: the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom – reputed to be the greatest sermon of the greatest preacher of all time, John, the “golden-mouthed,” bishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century. The homily is very short (a fact which may not be unrelated to its popularity!) You may remain seated for the first part, the great invitation. I’ll motion you to stand at the words, “The Savior’s death has set us free,” which begins the second part, the victory celebration. This is a congregational participation sermon; over the centuries certain gestures and responses have become a traditional part of it. At the mention of the annihilation of death, we’ll stamp our feet at the words, “annihilated it”; we’re trampling death under our feet. The sermon invites us to gloat over hell’s defeat, and the repeated word, “embittered”, is echoed by the congregation. Finally, the homily ends with a crescendo of three Easter acclamations building in intensity each time: Alleluia! Christ is risen!  
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Remember that this is a victory celebration; it’s the triumph of God, the triumph of life over death.

The Easter Homily
If any be devout and lovers of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant Feast of Feasts! 
If there are any wise servants, let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord. 
If any have wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive their recompense. 
If any have labored from the first hour, let them today receive their just reward. 
If any have come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If any have arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first; the Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, just as to those who have labored from the first.
He has mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; to one he gives, to the other he is gracious.
He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last, receive your reward. 
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!                                                      
O you diligent and you negligent, celebrate the day!                                                  
You who have fasted, and you who have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!                            
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!                   
Let all partake of the Feast of Faith.
Let all receive the riches of goodness.                                
Let none lament their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the Tomb!                           
Let none fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free! [*stand*] 
He who was taken by Death has annihilated it!  
He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive! He embittered it when it tasted of hisflesh!
And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”                                                       
It was embittered, for it was abolished.                                                     
It was embittered, for it was mocked!                                                        
It was embittered, for it was purged!                                                         
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!                                                     
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body, and face to face met God!                                                             
It took earth, and encountered Heaven!                                                        
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it has not seen!
“O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?”                                           
Christ is risen and you are overthrown!                                                   
Christ is risen and the demons are fallen!                                                           
Christ is risen and the angels rejoice!                                                           
Christ is risen and Life reigns!                                                           
Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the tomb!                                                      
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept.                       
To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages! Amen! 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!                                                             
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!                                                             
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!                                                             
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!



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