Easter is a time for sober reflection on matters of death and Resurrection, and not, one would think, an occasion for humor. Yet throughout history, some Christians at least have so relished the news of Christ’s triumph that they cannot contain their glee in declaring the good news. Without apology, then, I turn to one of the greatest medieval explorations of the Easter experience, and of the whole idea of Atonement.
Back in 2015, I wrote a book called The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (Basic Books), which among other things looked at the massive influence of certain apocryphal Jesus stories through the Middle Ages and beyond. One of the most powerful and persistent of these stories came from the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, which told of the Harrowing of Hell. According to this story, after the Crucifixion, Jesus descended to Hell and stormed Satan’s fortress in order to liberate the souls of the righteous who had died before his time. Many subsequent literary works recounted that story, while the number of depictions in visual art is overwhelming. Medieval people knew this story at least as well as anything recounted in the canonical gospels, and it became a foundation of their faith.
One of the great versions of the story appears in William Langland’s epic poem Piers Plowman, written around 1380. A sprawling vision of contemporary England, with a radical social and religious critique, Piers Plowman is a worthy rival to Chaucer’s work in the English literary canon. Langland describes the aftermath of the crucifixion from the standpoint of the Lords of Hell. It works very well as a play, and even, amazingly, offers important female roles.
The setting is after the Crucifixion, but before the Resurrection, that Holy Saturday when Christ descended to Hell, to liberate the righteous dead. We first hear the dialogue of the women Truth and Mercy, a really comic duo – the prissy and domineering Truth, and the kindly Mercy. Truth reports the dreadful situation of the old patriarchs and prophets lying in Hell. And as everyone knows, there is no escape from there. Mercy tries to interrupt, only to be harshly answered by Truth.
Never believe that yonder light will raise them up,
Nor have them out of Hell – hold your tongue, Mercy!
You are speaking nonsense. I, Truth, know the truth.
That once something is in Hell, it never comes out.
Actually, that’s a modern paraphrase. Just out of curiosity, here’s the original Middle English:
Leve thow nevere that yon light hem alofte brynge,
Ne have hem out of helle–hold thi tonge, Mercy!
It is but trufle that thow tellest–I, Truthe, woot the sothe.
For that is ones in helle, out cometh it nevere;
Mercy – shut up! But Mercy will not be silenced: “Through experience, she said, I hope they will be saved.” And in the Christian world view, Mercy will always win. When Peace arrives, she agrees with Mercy. Although she had never hoped to see Adam, Eve, and the rest, now hope had come: “Mercy shall sing, and I shall dance thereto! Do thou so, sister.” And just then, a distant voice cries “Attolite portas” – Lift up your gates! It is the war-cry of Christ’s advancing forces, taken from the words of Psalm 24.7-10.
The Lords of Hell become increasingly alarmed. Satan dreads what is to come, because he has already lost to Christ once, in the struggle over Lazarus. Lucifer takes comfort, though, in knowing that they were only fulfilling the contract with God. After all, God had decreed that sin should lead to Hell, and human beings had violated his commandment in the Garden of Eden. So could God or Christ really resort to treachery or trickery? Surely not, says Satan – but even so, he still worries.
The sense of menace among Hell’s leaders builds, as does our anticipation, culminating in Christ’s approach to the doors of Hell:
Again the light bade unlock and Lucifer answered,
“Who is this? What lord art thou?”
The light soon said, “The King of Glory
The lord of might and of main, and all manner of virtues
The Lord of virtues.
Dukes of this dim place, open these gates right now
That Christ may come in, the son of Heaven’s king.”
And with that breath Hell broke, despite Belial’s bars,
In spite of any thing the guards could do, the gates opened wide.
Patriarchs and prophets, People dwelling in darkness,
Sang Saint John’s song, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
Jesus then justifies his “raid,” which did indeed defy rigorous legality. Jesus, though, will not accept Satan’s rule. He explains the theory of original sin, but also why he does not propose to be bound by it. You, Satan, led humanity into your power by deceit and trickery, and that fact voids any legal claim you can propose. You robbed God of his proper possession, so God will now return the favor:
Although reason records, and right of myself,
That if they ate the apple all should die,
I promised them not here Hell for ever.
For the deed that they did, thy deceit it made;
With guile you got them, against all reason,
For in my palace, paradise, in the person of an adder,
Falsely thou fetchest there the thing I loved.
Thus like a lizard with a lady’s face
Like a thief you robbed me; the Old Law grants
that tricksters be tricked – and that is good reason.
Therefore a soul shall quit a soul, and sin drive out sin
And all that man has done wrong, I, man, will amend it.
This message was all the more powerful for a medieval world structured according to precisely defined rights and obligations, set down either in documents or customary form. Any party that breached the contract or treaty must suffer the consequences without complaint.
To borrow Langland’s character, Satan speaks the harshly clear words of Truth. Christ, though, preaches and practices the law of Mercy, which towers above all other values. Langland’s Christ is admirably unconcerned with the letter of law, even divine law. And after Christ’s victory, we hear angelic music, and Mercy and the others do get to dance:
Till the day dawned
These damsels danced
As men rung [bells] to the Resurrection.
How is that for a way of celebrating Easter?
Langland creates a superb drama, but it is also powerful theology. Piers Plowman teaches us some unforgettable lessons, about the fundamental ignorance of the Devil and his forces, and their slavish obedience to what they perceive to be iron laws, passed down by their warped vision of God. Christ, though, rises above simple, stupid legalism.
Modern historians point out that Langland’s critiques of legalism echo those of the proto-Protestant Lollard movement that was subverting church authority in the England of his time. If he was not himself a revolutionary, he was playing with deeply critical ideas. And where better to find those than in the texts that had grown up around the Bible, and that had become largely indistinguishable from it?
But here’s the core message: in the Christian world-view, never try to silence Mercy. You’ll lose.
I am adapting material here from an earlier post of mine at this site, in 2014.