Today is Holy Saturday. Today we remember the mourning of Jesus’ disciples over his death. We know that it was a sabbath day, a day of rest.
The situation allowed them, according to Luke, that the women returned home and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment (Luke 23:56). At the tomb, the guards kept their attentive watch over the place to ascertain that the disciples did not take them by surprise and steal Jesus’ body. But, and besides all this anxious and surrowful activity, where was Jesus?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly tells us in 633, 634 and 634 what happened to Jesus. “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’ – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God (Cf. Phil 2:10; Acts 2:24; Rev 1:18; Eph 4:9; Pss 6:6; 88:11-13). Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom’ (Cf. Ps 89:49; 1 Sam 28:19; Ezek 32:17-32; Lk 16:22-26): ‘It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell’. Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. ‘The gospel was preached even to the dead’ (1 Pet 4:6). The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. Christ went down into the depths of death so that ‘the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (Jn 5:25; cf. Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9). Jesus, ‘the Author of life’, by dying destroyed ‘him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage’ (Heb 2:14-15; cf. Acts 3:15). Henceforth the risen Christ holds ‘the keys of Death and Hades’, so that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth’ (Rev 1:18; Phil 2:10).
When reading this beautiful paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church one cannot fail from reminiscing the powerful words from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday:
“Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled. Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise. ‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead”.
The great theologian who spoke alot about Holy Saturday is, surely, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.
But there is, on Holy Saturday, the descent of the dead Jesus into hell: that is (speaking very simplistically), his solidarity in nontime with those who have been lost to God. For these people, their choice is definitive, the choice whereby they have chosen their “I” instead of God’s selfless love. Into this definitiveness (of death) the Son descends; but now he is no longer acting in any way but from the Cross is instead robbing every power and initiative by being the Purely Available One, the Obedient One, but in an obedience that has been humiliated to the point of being pure matter, the absolutely cadaver-like obedience that is incapable of any active gesture of solidarity, let alone of “preaching” to the dead. He is dead with the dead (but out of a final love).
But this is precisely how he disturbs the absolute loneliness that the sinner strives for: the sinner who wants to be “dammed” by God now rediscovers God in loneliness – but this time he rediscovers God in the absolute impotence of love. For now God has placed himself in solidarity with those who have damned themselves, entering into nontime in a way we could never anticipate. The verse of the psalm: “If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!” (Ps 139:8) thus receives a whole new meaning. And even the battle cry “God is dead” – that self-asserting diktat of the sinner who is finished with God – gains a whole new meaning that God himself has established. Creaturely freedom is respected but is still overtaken by God at the end of the Passion and once more undergirded (“inferno profundior”, as Pope Gregory the Great put it). Only in absolute weakness does God want to give each freedom created by him the gift of a love that breaks out of very dungeon and dissolves every constriction: in solidarity, from within, with those refuse all solidarity. Mors et viat duello… (ET, 422).
Let us let Christ’s solidarity thanks to his descent into hell to free those who were captive there lead you and me to show God’s selfless love to those around us who are slaves of their ego and their situation. May the splendour of Christ’s resurrection enrapture us and them through the love we show them, solidarity in action!
Almighty, ever-living God, whose Only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with him in baptism, may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap