Even if you're not Irish, and the most Irish thing you've ever done is eat Lucky Charms, you know all about leprechauns. The thing everyone knows about leprechauns is they love gold. The thing everyone knows about gold is that in Irish tradition pots of it languish at the "end of the rainbow." At the end of every rainbow, guarded by a leprechaun, is a legendary "pot of gold."
Sounds like easy pickings, no? Except for one teeny, tiny flaw in that equation -- no one can ever FIND the end of a rainbow. Ever try to follow a rainbow from one end to the other? The "end" always "moves," shifting onward, westward, eastward, somewhere. No one ever finds leprechaun gold, because no one can ever find the end of the rainbow.
Rainbow ends are "movable eats." As you come closer and closer to what looks like is going to be the end point, that shiny summit keeps shifting. Light, reflections, the curvature of the earth, keep transmitting that "end" perpetually forward. The global nature of our world, the roundness of the earth, keeps the end point from ever become a final "end point."
The rainbow is the only celestial body given divine importance, a divine imprimatur, in the Old Testament. And the rainbow is also the only celestial, "heavenly" event that begins and ends upon this earth. The rainbow is the divine, heavenly symbol that intentionally bonds itself to this world, both at its beginning and at its end.
The first Sunday of Lent is usually devoted to looking down the long journey to the still obscured (but we know it is glorious) miracle of Easter. No matter how intentional our Lenten days of prayer, no matter what we may "give up" for Lent, no matter how focused we may be on the tragedy of the crucifixion, we still know we are looking forward to Easter morning, to colored eggs, spring mornings, and the transforming joy of the Resurrection. It is hard to pretend we don't know the ending to Christ's story.
But the fact is, even though we may know the "end," most of us don't know even consider the "middle" of this journey. We don't know the story that drives the plot to its glorious conclusion. Here, at the beginning of the Lenten season, is the time to look at the heart of this divine drama.
The most neglected, the most misunderstood twenty-four hours in the entire Christian calendar is given the name of "No-Name Saturday," that deep, dark, extremely earthly day between the completed crucifixion and the miracle of the resurrection. The Book of Common Prayer prohibits the celebration of the Eucharist on Holy Saturday. It is the day of mystery on which all metaphors break down, the day of pause and silence in the narrative of Christ, but without pause and silence no story can be told. In the Apostle's Creed it comes to us in these four words that are seldom commented on: "he descended into hell."
There are, of course, no first hand accounts of the depths Jesus encountered on that day when he "descended into hell." Traditionally "Holy Saturday" a.k.a. "No-Name Saturday" has been taught as the "day" when the crucified Jesus journeyed into the depths of death. In the Christian tradition we envision those depths as "hell," that agonizing separation from God branded with fire and brimstone. But in Judaism and in Jesus' day that place between heaven and earth was known as Sheol, a dark, shadowy, not-living but not-torturous "place" at the center of the Earth. It was a kind of "waiting room" for souls, not a fiery pit, but definitely deep in the scary bowels of the earth, not part of the heavenly sphere.
It was into this dark, dismal, scary space, a space defined by the ugliest kind of segregation (separation from God's presence) that Jesus voluntarily ventured. Here is George Mackay Brown, poet of Orkney, in his poem entitled "The Harrowing of Hell:"
He went down the first step.
His lantern shone like the morning star.
Down and round he went
Clothed in his five wounds.
Six steps follow: on second he meets Solomon; third David; fourth Joseph; fifth Jacob; sixth AbelV
On the seventh step down
The tall primal dust [Adam]
Turned with a cry from digging and delving.
"Tomorrow," ends the poem, "the Son of Man will walk in a
Through drifts of apple-blossom." ("The Harrowing of Hell," in Northern Lights [London: John Murray, 1999], 24.)
It wasn't over for Jesus after he was crucified. He still had this part of his journey to make. Jesus had to go down before he could go up. The grace of God's redemption was not contained by his death on the cross. Jesus' sacrifice involved much more...