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Harrowing of Hell icon - detail - Joan Bryant and Marysia Kowalchyk

He was looking at me

You have probably been hearing the story in Genesis since you were a small child: God created the heavens and the earth. He filled the earth with plants and every living creature. Then he created man and woman and placed them in the earthly paradise prepared for them. But they disobeyed God and were expelled from that paradise with no possibility of return.

I distinctly remember the scene depicted in my children’s picture bible. An angel with fiery eyes points a flaming sword at the grieving, despairing couple as they leave the garden and journey into a barren wasteland. It haunted me.

After their sin, God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called to them, “Where are you?” I found myself asking the same question. Where are you? What happened to you, Adam and Eve, my parents?

I asked this question in grade one catechism class. Over the years I asked it of priests, of nuns, and eventually of professors in university and of my fellow theology classmates. We had wonderful discussions about free will. We talked of sin, good, evil, baptism, heaven, hell and purgatory. We talked of predestination, damnation, salvation, souls, bodies and baptism. We talked of saints and sinners, mercy and grace.

I pondered the felix culpa in the Easter Exultet, that “happy fault that earned for us so great a Redeemer.” But where were Adam and Eve? No one seemed to know.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but deep down, this quest for my first parents was not a matter of knowing their salvation, but of knowing mine.

Deep within, I hadn’t yet experienced the power of the Resurrection. I certainly professed it, believed it, and even received his resurrected body into mine in the Eucharist. But I held this point as an article of faith, as belief, as knowledge. I did not know it in my flesh, in my bones, as close as breath, as dear as life. This was, of course, because of sin and shame.

The heresy is that you must save yourself. The heresy is that unless you are pure the Most Pure One will not approach you.

Do you believe that too? Do you believe that if you finally behaved, you would be acceptable? Do you think that maybe if you would just be good, he could save you? I don’t think we would actually say that out loud. But isn’t that what many of us think: “Now that I’ve gone to confession, now that I’m all cleaned up, he will love me”?

This is not our faith. The Lord Himself says, It is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick (Mk 2:17 and Lk 5:21). How right the Pharisees were in accusing Jesus: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them (Lk 15:2).

Jesus welcomes us sinners in the confessional before we are purified, while we are yet sinners. It is his love that cleans us, his welcome that purifies us. After all, he loved us first.

When I came to Madonna House 15 years ago, I had two healing encounters with the Divine Physician. Let me tell you about them.

Hope from the East

I met an iconographer at Madonna House named Joan Bryant. She had nearly completed a giant icon of the The Harrowing of Hell when she died in a car accident. The unfinished icon was displayed for a few weeks in our auditorium where it could be viewed. One day I found myself alone and eye to eye with that enormous icon. I was transfixed. I stared and stared.

The icon depicts Christ’s triumphal descent into hell. He is in the center, grasping with each of his hands the wrists of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Beneath his feet are the trampled gates of hell, and the shattered chains of death.

In that place, Christ’s stance is sure footed. He fills the scene and dominates the entire space. He has a firm grip on their wrists, not their hands. He is doing the work of Savior. He is conqueror. His face is severe, terrible, tender, determined, and unstoppable. His gaze turns outward and meets the gaze of the viewer.

He was looking at me.  That gaze was challenging me to hide where he could not find me, run where he could not catch me, fall where he could not bear me up. I encountered the fierce love of a fierce Savior. I saw and I was healed.

Hope from the West

On my first Holy Saturday at Madonna House, I came to lauds (our common morning prayer prayed from the breviary). As usual someone read the excerpt from the Office of Readings for the day. On Holy Saturday it was taken from an ancient homily by an unknown second-century author. Granted, it was morning, and I was still a little sleepy, but as soon as the reader began, I was startled into alertness. This is what I heard:

Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.

The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.”

He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.

Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven.

I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open.

The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.


I heard these words and I was healed. As he commanded, I rose and left that place of unknowing.

Archbishop Joseph Raya* used to say that good theology was theology that could be sung. That day my heart and soul learned good theology. I was able to sing with joy what my mind had always known: I know that my redeemer lives and on the last day I shall rise again (Job 20:25).

Restoration April 2024

*Archbishop Joseph Raya, now deceased, was a Lebanese Melkite member of Madonna House.

The icon of The Harrowing of Hell was finally completed by Madonna House iconographer Marysia Kowalchyk and now hangs in our chapel at St. Mary’s.