The Holy Saturday Liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell


March 25, 2022

1 Peter 3:18-19 NIV

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits


For about the last fifteen years our family has practiced a Holy Saturday tradition. I have always connected it with this creedal affirmation of Jesus descending to the dead. We go to the Walt family burial plot at the Walnut Lake Cemetery outside of Dumas, Arkansas. Easter weekend has always been a memorable occasion for our family, and especially now that we no longer live in the same town as my parents. My sisters and their children and my children and I make a kind of pilgrimage to my parents home. On Saturday we load up in a caravan and head to the cemetery. Many years ago, my grandfather purchased a plot of probably twenty grave sites just on the right as you enter the gates. By God’s mercy it remains empty save the two plots of my grandparents, aka “Meemaw” and “Peepaw.” 

My parents, sisters, their children, my children and I (all fourteen of us) gather at the large granite tombstone. We tell stories about Meemaw and Peepaw, we take a group picture, say the Lord’s Prayer, and we recite the Apostles Creed together. After that, we sing the doxology. Finally, I exhort my parents, my sisters, and all the cousins that on this day many centuries ago our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ body lay in the grave. He was awakened from the dead and descended into hell, to the dead, where he proclaimed the gospel, broke the bars of the prison doors, and set the captives free. And after all of this—what I have come to The Holy Saturday Liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell—I encourage any and all who will join me to fan out through the cemetery, walking among the graves of friends and strangers alike, declaring aloud the news, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” Yes, we declare the resurrection among the tombs. 

What a joy it was when the cousins were young and willing to enter into such liturgical antics together with childlike abandon. Now, the day takes on a tone of joyful sobriety. As we look on one another in that cemetery year after year we share in a quiet kind of thankfulness for our lives still on this side of the ground, the endurance of our family through many dangers toils and snares, the reality of death, the hope of life everlasting, and the audacity of a God who would go to hell and back for the love of his children. 

He descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. . .

I know we don’t have all this fully sorted and figured out with the difference between Sheol and Hades and Heaven and Hell. And honestly, we won’t on this side. Jesus does. He never lets go. And he never gives up. Let’s give Peter the last word from some of his first words in chapter 1. 

23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

Holy Saturday is coming again soon. Consider taking a stroll through a cemetery this year—maybe even join in on the Holy Saturday Liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell. 


Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Thank you for the harrowing of hell— that you went there, broke the prison doors, set the captives free. It is yet another of the many markers of how high and how wide and how deep and how long is the love of Jesus. How we love you Jesus. Because of you we can walk through a cemetery and whistle. Holy Spirit, increase our hope to such a degree that it catapults our faith to walk with the audacity of Jesus in this world, loving others all the way to hell and back. Praying in Jesus’ name, Amen.


How often do you pass a cemetery in your daily weekly life? Just wondering. 

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

P.S. Get some of Timothy Tennent’s most important writings in this collection of his work, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Resource for Catechesis and Disciple-Making. Included you’ll find This We Believe. You can watch a video interview and preview the book in our store.

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Comments and Discussion

4 Responses

  1. There are no physical cemeteries that I’m forced to pass by on a daily basis. However, Scripture reveals that we live in a world of “the walking dead”. We can do nothing for those who have passed on in that state, but I believe that we have been given the task of setting the captives free while Today is the day of salvation. This I believe is what Jesus meant when He said: “And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” We’ve been given the keys. Death can no longer hold those who’ve died in Christ, captive. Jesus Christ is victorious over death. “Where O death, is your victory?
    Where O death, is your sting”
    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be God ! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”The strong man’s house has been plundered.

  2. Based on my experience, the only thing that was ever wrong with the historical liturgy used in worship was that it never went any deeper/the church never fleshed it out and it never truly left the building. But at least it connected me to a larger/longer timeline of understanding that became my safety net when things started to fall apart.

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