3 April 2010
Holy Saturday is the inspiration for some of the most fascinating medieval art that I have seen. Christ throwing open the gates of Hell and delivering the Patriarchs from these eternal fires of torment casts Christ, if only briefly, in a heroic role. The Hazing or Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday gave artists accustomed to most frequently depicting the sufferings of Christ an unusual opportunity to depict a heroic, triumphant Christ even while remaining entirely orthodox. And yet, as I observed last year in Sabbatum Sanctum, Holy Saturday is, today, little observed.
It is impossible to resist speculating the that decline (i.e., the long term decline from the Middle Ages to the present) in the observance of Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell is related to the general discomfort with the idea of Hell in the contemporary world. While there are still to be sure enthusiasts of the idea of Hell, for the most part people from the modern, industrialized parts of what was once Christendom are very uncomfortable with hell.
I have remarked on this in my Variations on the Theme of Life as well as in some Twitter posts. Today the idea of eternal torment as a just judgment upon individuals for what today seem like mere trifles is an image that invokes not gloating satisfaction but pity and sympathy.
People today are also very uncomfortable with the idea of the condemnation of unbaptized infants to Hell. Some contemporary theologians deny outright that the established church ever held this position. I have personally known people who have left the Christian denomination in which they were raised for the express reason of seeking a Christian denomination that would explicitly deny that unbaptized infants go to Hell. It stands to reason that the kind of people who would be uncomfortable with the notion that unbaptized infants go to Hell would also be the kind of people who would wonder why upright Patriarchs would be condemned to Hell temporarily until freed by Christ. Thus the neglect of Holy Saturday may be connected to the decline of Hell in recent history.
Nothing I have written so far today is especially surprising and controversial, but to hazard an explanation for the neglect of Holy Saturday and the decline in enthusiasm for Hell could well take us into controversial claims about history. Most especially, we could describe this evolution of Christian society as “progress” — and everyone today knows that claiming that history demonstrates progress is a fool’s errand (perhaps appropriate for a Holy Week that spans All Fool’s Day).
Perhaps the historical path that has taken us from the world of the early modern period in which torture was a public spectacle, and in which the taunting of the condemned was part of the proceedings (cf. especially Part One of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), to the world of the present in which torture is hidden away behind locked doors, practiced in shame and secrecy, could be described not as progress but as a mere increase in squeamishness. Yet their are other elements in the contemporary world that lead me to believe that we can meaningfully define progress in history, even moral progress, though this is a large task I have reserved for an inchoate manuscript.
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