* Written for Holy Saturday, this is a hymn for congregational singing.The-cross-which-yesterday-was-like
… this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. (1 Peter 4.6)
The reason referred to is that those who live in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry, who are surprised (offended, alienated) that you (Christians, possibly newly baptized Christians) no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation … will have to give account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4.4-5)
It might be assumed that churches would be packed on Easter Eve, for what could matter more to anyone than the conviction that one stands ready to judge the living and the dead? Ironically – and significantly? – Easter Eve (also known as Holy Saturday) is commonly treated as the day for the church building’s annual spring clean. Perhaps this corporate cleansing activity serves as the church symbolically imitating Christ in his harrowing of hell. This much at least may be asserted: that not many people attend the Eucharist on this day, and that this reading from the First Letter of Peter is not one of the best-known Christian texts.
The writer thought of the cross as being like the street entrance to a station on the underground railway. So far from Jesus’ work having been finished on the cross, his death marks his move from surface mortality to life below the surface; to the life which is death personalized, but death that has its power taken from it by the dead life-giver come into its midst. This is what informs the imagery of the hymn’s first stanza. The cross is “Love’s spike” that, bayonet-like, spears “death; and death shall die”.
The hymn is a prayer intended to contradict the feeling of not wanting to know about what goes on beneath or beyond mortality. We may believe that “At life’s far pole our mortal death becomes love’s womb” – that something unimaginably momentous goes on in and beyond death – but most of us are disinclined to think about it. The Spiritualist Church is perhaps the exception here, yet its practice is regarded with a good deal of suspicion by mainstream Christian churches. In this hymn suspicion is overcome in the prayer “Christ, take us down, each careless soul and grieving saint, into the tomb to meet our own.” Who or what is meant by “our own” is deliberately left open: it may be those who have preceded us into death, or it may be our own fears; more likely, both. There is in any case a desire in this prayer not simply to walk away from Jesus now dead and buried. We specifically deny that our relationship with Jesus has been ended by his death, and by implication, our own deaths. Whatever we may know of love in this present life is like the merest intuition of what gestates in death within “love’s womb”.
The central image of the third stanza is the “deepening void (vibrating with) the gospel note of judgement true …” Behind this image is a verse from the previous chapter of 1 Peter: Christ … was made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison (3.18b-19). We witness from a distance, as if reading from a seismometer, or as though on our knees listening through a glass held to the floor. And what we dimly perceive is that “all long, (and) all recent dead, (and) all fates are overwhelmed by (Christ as) light and dew”; these images intimate the early morning of Jesus’ rising, soon to be openly celebrated and proclaimed throughout the cosmos of human awareness.
So the hymn concludes with a simple prayer addressed to the “life unseen, strong sap of love, embodying every hope and fear”, that “both live and dead (may be removed) from death to rise with you …” In what may seem to be high presumption, not to say ‘lèse-majesté’, the Lord Christ is called “our … peer”. The image means no more than is implied by, for instance, Colossians 3.1: if you have been raised with Christ; not ‘after’ or even ‘beneath’ but with Christ: we are sisters and brothers of our sovereign Lord.
Between the 5th and the 7th centuries Christ’s descending into hell was inserted into the Creeds. In medieval times belief in the harrowing of hell was widespread. This hymn explores for our time the dimensions of Christ in hell.