Harrowing Of Hell
April 16, 2022

The Great Vigil

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Tonight, I’d like you to join me on a journey to the Holy Land. I have been there 10 times, and tonight, I look forward to returning there with you. It is a journey that continues the exploration of our souls as so illuminated by Kelli on Maundy Thursday and Susan on Good Friday.

We will begin this journey by descending into the caverns of Bethesda, where we will glimpse the edges of the Holy Spirit. Then we will explore the corridors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, praying at the altar of Baptism. But most importantly, tonight, it is my hope, that this journey will open our eyes to the saints in light who surround us. We are in their presence even now, dancing like the flame on the candle you are currently holding.

We begin our journey at the Pools of Bethesda. There, last in February, I descended down, down into caverns that were once pools of water. 2000 years ago, lying next to these pools was a disabled man. He had been there 38 years waiting to get into the water when it was “stirred up.”  But he couldn’t; no one would help him.

I used to wondered what was meant: “the waters were stirred up,” until I ventured into the caverns that had been the pools of Bethesda. At the bottom, there is still some water, black as a cape draped over a formless void. There in the thick coolness I was startled by a dove.  It surprised me, or maybe I surprised it. Out of nowhere, it hovered in front of us, and then ascended. Of course, it had to be a dove…That is just how the Holy Spirit works. In that moment, I sensed God calling me to pay attention –

So I pulled out my phone thinking I’d capture another startled dove, but instead, my phone captured millions upon millions of tiny flecks of light coming toward me… as if I were Hans Solo flying the Millennium Falcon. I think that moment was the closest I will ever come to seeing the substance of the Holy Spirit.

It took my mind a moment to catch up with what my soul was experiencing: that power that stirred up the water, that movement of the Holy Spirit that brooded over the deep at the very beginning of time… and still is, and still broods, and still blows through creation, most powerfully when it moves over water, like the water that remained at the bottom of that cavern and the water that we will use to baptize tonight.

The moment reminded me of that scene in Immortal Beloved  where Beethoven went out in the middle of the night and laid in the pond and looked up at the sky seeing billions upon billions of stars and in his soul hearing Ode to Joy.

What I witnessed at the Pools of Bethesda is repeated at every baptism… waters stirred by the Holy Spirit surging up from the deep mystery of God.

With my pilgrim’s soul, buoyant and flickering, a few days later I arrived very early one morning at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is the most holy place in Christendom; a church that houses both the stone into which the cross of Jesus was wedged, Golgotha; and the cave, now an Edicule, in which the body of Jesus was laid: then a stone was rolled in front of it; and then rolled away from it, as the body of Jesus walked out… if that is how it happened. All I know is that it happened.  You can feel it when you are there.

The Holy Sepulcher is always cold, and it is always dark. Even when it is bright out, with light pouring through the windows high on the rotunda the light feels thick, somehow, like molasses. The light in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is also sweet… attractive to the soul, like bees to a flower in bloom.

I think, in small part, it is how one’s soul will feel when liberated from the body. Maybe that is how Jesus felt as a resurrected person, standing in the garden. When Mary reached up for him, his first instinct was: “No, I have yet to ascent.” Maybe he thought she would stick to him. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a place that is spiritually sticky.

There is a small, out-of-the-way chapel, in the Holy Sepulcher managed by the Armenian Christians, made to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. The chapel is dug from solid rock, and over the last 1800 years, as pilgrims descend to it they stopped to carve small crosses into the stone. It is these crosses that became the Jerusalem cross; one big one, with four small ones in each quadrant. There are thousands of them, that come at you like flecks of light off the waters of baptism. They are the imprint of past pilgrim souls.

I knelt before the altar. Behind it was a fresco of Jesus being baptized. No one was around. I felt compelled to kneel, to experience the hard rock against my brittle bones. Then I lay on the ground forehead pressed against the cold stone, arms stretched out. It was adoration; but also, confession and soul filled consideration for who God was to me, and what God was calling forth from my very life.It was prayer. There is no right way to pray, incidentally. There is no wrong way to pray, either. There is only the compulsion to pray, and the choice to do so.  We have made the choice to do so, together, tonight, and we are not alone.We are surrounded by the saints in light. I know this to be true.  For as I lay there, the oddest thing happened, the stone-cold stone became warm with the lives and prayers of all the saints that have gone before me. And my body seemed to feel, then reel, from the power of their presence all around.

And I was reminded of a scene from the Bible, found in Second Kings: The one where Elisha, the prophet, was taking refuge in the walled city of Dothan to escape the Arameans. But they found him and came at night and surrounded the city. Elisha’s servant spotted them outside the wall in the morning, and came running to Elisha with news: “We are finished!”

Elisha responded,” No, we are not. Open your eyes, and you will see surrounding the soldiers an army of angels, saints in light, with flaming swords that will protect us.” And what the servant witnessed, I suppose, were bright flecks of light flying into the eyes of the Arameans, blinding them.  So, Elisha exited the walled city and stood before the Arameans saying: “Follow me, I will lead to the man you are looking for.”

So, they followed Elisha, and he led them to Samaria, where they were then surrounded by the King of Israel. Then Elisha commanded them to open eyes, and they did so, and they were terrified. The king of Israel asked Elisha: “Should I kill them?”  To which Elisha replied: “No, prepare a feast for them,” and he did so, and they feasted together.

It is a strange story, one that came to mind then as a way of reminding me now to let you know we are surrounded by the saints in light. And tonight, we feast with them by the waters of baptism. We are in the midst of these saints in light, and yet we cannot quite see them.

And so, we brought from Bethlehem an outward and visible sign of these saints to be, symbolically, the reality of their presence. You will see this Pilgrim’s Icon shortly by the waters of baptism, present to this parish for the very first time at this Easter Vigil. It was written 175 years ago in a Russian monastery. Upon it dance 555 saints representing the panoply of our inclusive God.

I call this Pilgrim’s Icon: “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey…”It fits Epiphany well. It is my hope that in this icon you will find yourself, and your neighbors. You will find your colleagues and cousins and even your enemies. You will find the saints that have gone before, and the saints that are yet to come; and you will find your sister who is being baptized with water and the Holy Spirit tonight, Anna.

We have been to the Holy Land, together, tonight even as we are sitting in this sacred space, right here, right now. And from there to here all history and mystery and symbolism has accrued to us, alighting upon us, and opening up to us as doors through which the world can see the saints in light.