Harrowing Of Hell
April 11, 2020

Easter Vigil

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good evening Christians, seekers, and friends watching from home.

In this difficult time, I want to pause for a moment and give thanks for you. The gift of imagination is that though we may be worshipping together in different places, in my mind’s eye I can “see” you wherever you may be. Please know, too, that the thought of you all out there worshipping with us serves as a source of strength and hope for me and the staff at Epiphany. We can feel your prayers for us. We hope you can feel ours for you as well. Right now, we all need the strength and hope of community. It’s a good thing, then, that hope is what tonight is all about. In each of this evening’s lessons from the Hebrew scriptures, we find examples of God’s saving help. Example after example of God making a way when there seems to be no way is in sight.

This was the certainly the case for Noah, who listened to the Lord and built an ark during a good and dry season. The ark, almost certainly considered the project of a ‘crazy fool’ before the rains came, served as the way to save the lives, not only Noah and his family, but also a pair of every wild animal of every kind, all domestic animals of every kind, every creeping thing on the earth, every winged creature and every bird. God’s way emerged when after 40 long days and nights of rain which flooded the entire earth and set the ark afloat, Noah opened the window and sent forth the raven who “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.” 

We forget the raven. While as a Christian people we are no longer as biblically literate as earlier generations for whom their family Bible served not only as a holy book but as a book of shared stories as well, many of us still recall the story of Noah and his ark. We remember that every living creature on earth, two by two, were put on board. We remember that the rain was to have fallen for forty day and forty nights. And we remember the dove who Noah sends out from the ark three times – coming back from her second flight with the hope of a replenishing earth seen in the olive branch in her beak. We might remember the rainbow and the promise that God made with humanity and every earthly creature. But most of us totally forget about the raven – even though she is the first bird mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. The bird that flies to and fro until the waters dried up. The bird that flies to and fro until all the other living things on the earth are able to leave the ark and once again live upon and repopulate the earth. 

Now as Episcopalians we love this story and believe its mythological truth may be, in many ways, deeper than our modern ‘facts.’ We recognize the importance of the symbols held within and the way these symbols help guide us through the stories of scripture. We note, for example, that this is not the only story where we hear the significance of the number forty – whether it be the Israelites who for forty long years wandered in the wilderness or Jesus’ forty long days and nights of fasting. The number 40 marks a significant change – a new way of being borne out of a time of testing and trial.  And this story also gave us the significance behind the miraculous and glorious appearance of rainbows. And, of course, this story has also been linked in our mind with the dove that in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism is said to have been the form the Holy Spirit takes as she descends and alights on Jesus. This symbolic link between the Spirit and the dove in the story of Noah was especially strong during the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians. As theologian Graydon B. Snyder notes, “The Noah story afforded the early Christian community an opportunity to express piety and peace in a vessel that withstood the threatening environment” of Roman persecution.   Right now, we come to this story in the midst of our own threatening environment—the global pandemic of Covid 19. We are struggling to find out how we ‘do’ Christian community in a new way – honoring our commitments to one another and our fellow human beings while observing the need to stay home to stop the transmission of this deadly virus.

The gift of our imagination is that it allows us to look more deeply into our stories—and re-examine them in light of our new experiences. To pull back our assumptions and to re-engage with our God-given creativity.  It is time for us to remember the raven. 

The raven, whom Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom referred to as the un- feted bird of Noah’s ark, had a purpose in the story. But for over five thousand years the birds’ purpose in general – and the raven in particular – have been generally overlooked. As the Rabbi notes, for all these thousands of years, very few have asked the question of why Noah sent the raven out and what could she accomplish that the dove couldn’t or vice- versa? Maybe it’s because we have for so long focused on the better-known aspects of the story—but don’t you wonder about these two birds too?

Some theologians think that the difference between the birds is unimportant – that they are simply two traditions — two versions of the same story that have been fused together. Raven or dove – doesn’t matter. Others, such as Philo of Alexandria, have argued that the birds are purely symbolic opposites; the raven representing vice (and, to his mind, never returning as it is comfortable in the destroyed and sinful world) while the dove represents virtue (so she must return as she cannot bear to live among the remnants of such devastation).  But this kind dualism—this blanketed division of vice vs. virtue or good vs. bad hasn’t served us well over time. And as Christians, we affirm a Christ who came so that all division should cease.

Now I know that my exploration of two birds from the  story of the ark might seem, as my dad would sometimes say, “for the birds” –especially on this important night,  our symbols guide us through the scripture and creatively wondering about and questioning our assumptions might just bring us new insight and new understanding. What if we were to consider Noah’s sending out of the raven as God ‘s ‘spirit’ once again hovering ‘over the waters in the story of creation in Genesis 1:1-5 where we read:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

If we read the role of the raven in this way, not only are we able to recognize the distinct role of the raven in this story, we are able to see the raven in a new light. Mainstream culture sees her much like Philo of Alexandria – we tend to think of these birds as symbols of darkness or bad omens. The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, however, saw the raven as a creator of our world – who stole the sun, water, moon and stars from Grey Eagle to give them to us.  And it was the ravens that the God charged with feeding the prophet Elijah in the desert. If we remember the raven as one who is actively re-creating the world in a new way, we might see that the dove’s role was to help Noah – help us — ascertain when it was time to begin anew—when it was safe for us—and for all her fellow creatures to leave the ark and return to the earth.  When the Dove doesn’t return the ark, some has posited it was because she found the twigs and branches on the ground necessary to build her nest. Re-creating, protecting and bringing forth new life – these two birds, one black and one white, both reflect the Spirit of God working in different and equally important ways. 

Oddly enough, I started thinking about the importance of both the dove and the raven in Noah’s story when I was watching a movie at home. As many of us shelter in place, we may find we have more time to watch a film, bake those cookies or try out new recipes – we’re nesting if you will. My husband Jeremy and I have used this time to do a lot of things around the house including working our way through the galaxy…the Marvel galaxy. Isn’t it interesting just how much the characters of comic books and their superheroes have become part of our modern story books? And, more interesting still, that they share much in common with the ancient stories of our ancestors in the Bible – they feature questions about good and evil—re-framed in film. In them the struggle for good over evil, however, is played out by ‘super’ humans or creatures who fight to save the world or worlds….

In our story of Noah, when the dove does not return to the ark, we know that it is God’s promise to humanity to never again flood the entire earth, as evidenced by the rainbow, that has  saved the world — restored it so the dove can again make her nest. Although our bird’s nest is about as far from a spaceship as imaginable isn’t it funny how it still resonates with us?  The term ‘nest’ in still used in so many of our phrases because it resonates with our need to be safe—be at “home.” We say we are nesting, or we are empty nesters. We save ‘nest eggs.” I particularly like the term “feathering our own nest” which we use in two diametrically opposed ways – one meaning simply making one’s home comfortable and the other meaning taking, by selfish and unscrupulous means, advantage of someone else to empower or enrich our own position.

Anyway, when we re-watched my personal favorite of the Marvel films which I love even though I have to admit that I am not a super fan of superheroes, a raven’s nest came to mind. Now the Guardians of the Galaxy are dark raggle-taggle team of misfits—and, at least at first movie, criminals and prisoners. This  motley bunch –a space pirate, a green woman, a strong man, a sarcastic talking racoon and an odd tree being who only says one thing – “I am Groot’ not only band together and become a family –they  choose to give their own lives to save the world with great soundtrack of old songs in the background. But let’s not go into that on such a holy night. Anyway, there is one scene in this movie that I want you to imagine if you can. A moment that made me think about how God makes a way out of no way – how God brings life out of the ruin. How Jesus saves. It comes when the heroes trying to save all life in the galaxy know and accept that the only way to do so is to crash their own ship into a destroying starship with little hope of survival. Miraculously, however, after the crash they find themselves battered and bruised but still alive even though they are now aboard a crashing ship hurtling toward the planet. Groot the tree-like character in the midst of smoke, fire and chaos and stretches out his arms and he begins to grow vine-like branches that wrap all around his friends cradling them from  the sides and from below like a giant bird’s nest and then the vines continue to grow up and all around them thicker and thicker until he has surrounded them like a huge round ball of life. While that might sound scary – inside this nest — it really is beautiful as Groot has now sprouted all these green and glorious soft leaves and has lit the end of his own tendrils like tiny fairy lights—as we would a tree strung with lights or candles for a special occasion—and then Rocket the Raccoon—says to his taciturn friend, “No Groot… you can’t…you’ll die. Why are you doing this?”  And Groot who only ever said one thing, “I am Groot” said something else. He said, “We are Groot.”

Friends, though we are not in the same space tonight—I want to tell you that in our hearts we are all together in a virtual ark …in our own internet spaceship …in our Father’s house…. We are all in this together. Yes, we are staying inside; we are staying physically separate until this virus recedes. But I saw a rainbow on the raven’s wing as she flew over us…. And the olive branch is in the beak of the dove….and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has already stretched out his arms on the cross, he has died, and he has been buried, but he is rising up… We have been saved. In my mind’s eye, we are like one huge round ball of life. I see your lights shining ….because we are Epiphany Parish.