The harrowing of hell
The story so beloved of medieval mystery plays around Christ’s harrowing of hell has a complex and much disputed history. There are two primary interpretations of the spirits in prison: either they are the disembodied spirits of Noah’s contemporaries imprisoned in Hades, who in rabbinic tradition are excluded from resurrection, or they are the fallen angels of Genesis 6.1-6 [the majority view, and one which some rabbinic material alludes to.]
The expansion of the latter suggestion dates back to the Book of the Watchers, a 3rd or 2nd century BC comprising the first 36 chapters of 1 Enoch 36, embellishing Genesis 6. The tradition includes a punishment through flood for such miscegenation, so it is possible to read it in this way. However, allusions to Christ preaching to those who died in the old dispensation occur in the early 2nd century Shepherd of Hermas, one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers and in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and Odes of Solomon.
Underlying both traditions is the Christological theme of the victory of Christ, and his Lordship over all that is above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth. The detail can be endlessly argued about, though Hades/Sheol is clearly the place of the dead in general rather than a place of final [and often eternal] punishment post-judgement.
In summary, the tradition, carried on widely through the Middle Ages and then falling into disrepute in 16th Protestant Europe, celebrates the power of Christ to save, the comprehensive reach of that salvation, the justice of God’s salvific acts in potentially incorporating all, and the cosmic dimensions of the battle between good and evil. Maybe it is time to recover this celebration for the Saturday of Holy Week, rather than simply going shopping for Easter eggs in a consumerist anticipation of the return of spring!