Good Holy Saturday

It is probably fair to say that even many Christians, if asked why Good Friday should be called good, might be hard pressed to supply such an explanation. Edifying exegesis abounds, of course, and we know the story doesn’t end with the crucifixion. But the unspeakable agony, terror and desolation of that day seem about as far from good as you can get. Horrific Friday, may seem a more fitting label. Or Foolish Friday to some. Stumbling Block Friday to others.

Christ’s descent into hell on Holy Saturday may well be the least understood, or least contemplated, portion of the Creed. Though it has been a matter of some theological debate, I suspect it forms a void of sorts in many minds. Just what was going on that day? The office of readings for Holy Saturday contains an ancient and stirring homily that sheds some light on the matter. It is not long and well worth reading in full.

The unknown author writes that on this silent and still day Christ “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.”

Written approximately 1,600 years ago, it features several parallels to the Garden of Eden as a means of depicting Christ as the New Adam – who restores what had been lost. Some of these parallels may be obvious and familiar, but others are less so. The familiar include the fact that Gethsemane, like Eden, was a garden, and that a tree figures prominently in the fall and in the redemption. The author, for instance, has Christ proclaiming to Adam, to the dead and buried: “See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.”

Less familiar, perhaps, is the sword. Here the author has Christ disclosing: “The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.” (In similar vein, the author has our wounded Healer declaring: “On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back.”)

After the fall, it was a fiery revolving sword along with the cherubim that prevented Adam and Eve from re-entering the garden – that kept mankind estranged from God. And what does Christ instruct Peter to do after he cut off the high priest servant’s ear: put the sword away. This is not merely an exhortation to non-violence, but a symbol of reconciliation; the impediment to reunification with God is being removed.

“Christ in Limbo” by Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1491 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]
From the sleeping side of Adam came Eve; from the pierced side of the new Adam (while “sleeping” on the cross) comes blood and water – the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism which constitute the Church, so identified with Mary, the new Eve and mother of the Church.

Supposing the author got the gist of it right, imagine Adam hearing the following on that decisive Saturday:

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. . . .I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. . . .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.

That sounds pretty good.

Joseph Ratzinger also has a gem of an interpretation on that curious part of the creed that corresponds to today – Christ’s descent into Hell. In his book Introduction to Christianity , he sets it up with this observation: “In truth – one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness.”

Ratzinger then relates that the Old Testament uses only one term, interchangeably, for both death and hell, Sheol: “Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer reach is – hell.” The terrifying prospect of hell – by rejecting God’s generous love and offer of redemption – can, in that respect, be understood as “deliberate self-enclosure.” This, incidentally, rather emphatically stands on its head the quip that “hell is other people”.

What Christ was doing on Holy Saturday, according to Ratzinger, was striding “through the gate of our final loneliness. . .in his passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer.”

Happy Easter!


*Image: Christ in Limbo by Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1491 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.