“He Descended Into Hell”: A Reflection for Holy Saturday
By Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.
Today Hell cries out groaning:
‘I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the souls I had held captive.’
Glory to Thy cross and Resurrection, O Lord!
—Vesperal Liturgy for Holy Saturday
Christ’s descent into hell is a line which we repeat in the Apostles Creed, yet it is one that is probably confusing to most folks who likely recite the words without reflection. And this neglect is often reflected in the lack of attention to the event of Holy Saturday in the Easter Triduum, yet it is at the heart of our faith.
What confuses us is the reference to “Hell.” We think of hell today as the place of final damnation. That place of which Dante wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” But in ancient usage, Hades is the abode of dead. So in the Spirit the Resurrected Christ descended to the realm of the dead to free the souls of the righteous held captive there. This is alluded to in I Peter 3:18 and following.
When we think of the Easter Triduum, we focus on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, beginning with the Great Vigil. Holy Saturday—or the time between Jesus’ death and his glorious Resurrection—is almost a non-day. There are no sacraments—only the daily Office. We treat it as almost a break between the great events.
Yet it is an important time of action. Jesus is not resting peacefully in the tomb. He has been raised in the Spirit and confronts Death, destroying its power and freeing those held captive. Because it happens out of sight, so to speak, does not mean that nothing is happening.
There is much that is important happening behind the scenes or under the surface.
—Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.
While the discovery of the empty tomb is a Third Day Easter event, the reality of the Resurrected One is virtually immediate. The classic (although not the only) icon of the Resurrection is actually a depiction of the harrowing of hell: “The Risen Lord is standing on the Fallen Gates of Hell in the form of a cross pulling Adam and Eve out from the underworld, their chains and shackles falling away.” They are free—and with them, the souls of all the righteous. The hymn quoted above from the Byzantine Holy Saturday Liturgy offers a sense of the magnitude of this event.
What can we learn from all this beyond a deeper appreciation of the fullness of the Easter Triduum? There is much that is important happening behind the scenes or under the surface. If we limit ourselves to the external—the plainly visible—we lose access to the mystery of faith … indeed, the depth and mystery of ourselves and other human beings.
From an Ancient Christian Homily
“A thing 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. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
“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 for 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 am in you; together we form only one person and we 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.
“See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I 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.”