Holy Saturday and the Descent into Hell

Among the days of the Sacred Triduum, Holy Saturday remains the least significant.  For most Christians, it is simply a placeholder—a day of waiting for Easter.  Good Friday is done and now we await the celebration of Easter.  To live this sacred season to the fullest, we need to see it for what it is liturgically—the day of the death of God.  This is especially true given the practical  experience of our age; an age when many forces in our culture have succeeded in implementing  Nietzsche’s plan; “God is dead and we have killed Him.”

This experience of God’s silence is, as Pope Benedict once said, “part of Christian revelation…Only when we have experienced Him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence.”  This truth is so foundational to the Christian life, that it is was presupposed by an article in the Apostles’ Creed marked by the tenet that “He descended into Hell.”  Holy Saturday, then, offers us a unique opportunity to meditate upon this article of the Creed.

Part of the Christian Myth?

This particular article of the Creed, according to Pope Benedict, has become a victim of the demythologizing of Christianity, rendering it incomprehensible to many of us.  Some of this stems from a certain amount of ambiguity attached to the word Hell.  In English, we usually associate this word with the hell of the damned, but the Catechism of the Concil of Trent makes the distinction between three different abodes called Hell.  The first is the dark prison where the damned are tormented is called Gehenna and is hell strictly speaking.  The second consists of the fires of purgatory where the just men are cleansed from temporal punishment.  The third is Sheol which is the abode into which the souls of the just before the coming of Christ the Lord were received and remained, without experiencing any sort of pain and sustained by the blessed hope of redemption, in peaceful repose.

When we speak of Christ’s Decent into Hell we are referring to the place called Sheol in  Hebrew (Greek Hades and Latin infernus).  Christ did not visit the hell of the damned, a place that by definition, God does not go.   Instead He visited the place where the souls of the just men went, commonly referred to as Abraham’s bosom.

It was first of all fitting that He did this.  As punishment for Original Sin, the souls of all the just were sent to Sheol.  Because He was like unto us in all things but sin, Christ the preeminently just man, upon the separation of His body and soul at death descended to the abode of the dead and remained there until it was reunited to His body in the Resurrection.  As St. Peter tells the crowds at Pentecost Christ was “released from the pangs of Hades; for it was impossible for Him to be held by its power” (Acts 2:24).

What did He do while He was there?  As he did on the earth, He did under the earth—“proclaimed liberty to the captives.”  Who were these captives?  The righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, who, like Abraham had faith in the fulfillment of God’s promises were the captives freed.  This faith was credited to them in righteousness as St. Paul tells the Romans.  They are among the great clouds of witnesses listed in the Book of Hebrews; the Fathers like Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham; Jews like Moses and David; non-Jews like Rahab; and those who passed during Jesus’ life like His precursor John the Baptist, and foremost in great joy, St. Joseph.

St. Peter, in writing of Christ’s descent, says that “He preached to the souls in prison” (1 Pt 3:19).  This was an act of proclamation that what they had believed in and waited for during their lives, had taken place.  It was not as if He told them about Himself and they could decide whether to believe or not.  These men and women already believed and died in faith and charity.  Jesus did not “convert” unbelievers during His time in Sheol.  They had their period of trial during their lives.  It is appointed that all men die once and then judgement.  There is no test after death nor is there a second chance.  However, as St. Thomas says, Christ’s descent was virtually into the Hell of the Damned because its effects were felt in order to put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness.

Christ’s Victory Dance

Christ’s Descent into Hell is a descent of victory.  The righteous who were held within the confines of Abraham’s Bosom would have been a virtual trophy case for the devil.  Although just, they were still kept from God in death.  The devil would have looked upon the death of Christ initially as one more victory.  That is until His actual descent when He conquers death by His death.  This truth is one that is beautifully captured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ when the devil screams with the realization that God has used his weapon, death, against him.

The Descent into Hell is no mere collection of theological facts, but are charged with meaning.  As I alluded to at the beginning, this article of the Creed is so relevant today because God is seen by many to be silent.  But just as when Christ appeared to be silenced by death, God is always at work bringing about redemption.  Just when things seem darkest, God is at work turning evil on its ear. Those who remained in Abraham’s bosom are the saints of hope and patrons for all of us.  Despite all appearances to the contrary they knew that when God does speak, He always keeps His promises.  Often all they had were His promises.  They had to wait for Him to come to save them and wait they did.  Christ’s Descent into Hell reminds us that God always keeps His promises.  Through their intercession, may we spend this Holy Saturday, waiting in joyful hope.

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