This past weekend in my parish I preached a homily in which I referenced the Harrowing of Hell, which is an Old English phrase describing the descent of Our Lord to hell during his three days in the grave. The word “harrowing” is from “hergian,” which means to harry or plunder. It is also the name of a farm implement similar to a plow that was used to break up the soil in the fields. So, Our Lord’s descent to the grave was the beginning of the breaking of the Satan’s kingdom.
The first known description of these events as a Harrowing is from an Easter homily by Aelfric around 1000AD He preaches,
Hell oncneow Crist, ðaða heo forlet hyre hæftlingas ut, þurh ðæs Hælendes hergunge.
Hell acknowledged Christ when it let its captives out, through the Saviour’s harrowing.
A Clerk of Oxford, who maintains a fascinating blog, brings to our attention the beautiful 14th century poem, “Piers Plowman,” which imagines the days following the Crucifixion:
The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time
About midday, when most light is, and meal-time of saints –
Feddest Thou with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness:
Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
And the light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blent, [blinded] And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.
In my homily I claimed that Caedmon, the probably illiterate, God-taught poet composed a poem of genius called “Christ and Satan” (the provenance is contested and I’m unqualified to weigh in) which also describes the Harrowing. The poetry, like that of “Piers Plowman,” is gorgeous:
Crashing thunder went before the judge, who bowed and burst the doors of hell. And bliss came unto men when they beheld their Savior’s face.
A friend, having read the homily, sent me a link to an audio file. It’s a reading of “Caedmon’s Hymn.” Heard out loud, it has a beauty all its own, particularly in the spare, haunting cadence. Take a listen. You won’t regret it.