Holy Saturday’s Silent Embrace

One of the joys of spiritual and intellectual companionship is to recommend to another a book that has deeply influenced one’s own journey. And then to discover that the work recommended has, in turn, enriched the life of one’s student or friend.

Joseph Ratzinger himself was the recipient of such a gift. He recounts how a senior student in the seminary recommended to him Henri de Lubac’s classic, Catholicism, and how that book “became an essential milestone” on his own theological journey.

One of Ratzinger’s own books has itself achieved such classic status: Introduction to Christianity. I have happily recommended it to a generation of theological students and their response has been as enthusiastically grateful as their predecessors who first heard the lectures given by the young Tübingen theologian in 1967.

Re-reading the work recently with a group of graduate students, I was struck once again at the impact it makes. The only regret expressed was that they had not been introduced to it earlier in their theological journey.

One section of the work seemed to speak with particular force, given our proximity to the great Paschal Triduum. Ratzinger offers a short, but penetrating reflection on the article of the Apostles Creed that confesses Christ’s descent into hell. As is characteristic of the entire book, the author has an acute awareness of the need to address the contemporary man or woman who finds the language of faith puzzling, if not crudely mythological.

So he formulates the objection straightforwardly: “Possibly no article of the Creed is so far from present-day attitudes of mind as this one.” A facile solution, advocated by de-mythologizers of various stripes, is simply to eliminate the stumbling block. One might call it the “Bultmann option.” But Ratzinger is too respectful of Tradition and too discerning a student of the human condition to settle for so easy an escape.

Instead, in the manner of a mystagogue, he probes the mystery, associated in particular with Holy Saturday, and finds that it actually resonates with particular force in an age in which God has seemingly fallen silent, conspicuously absent from human affairs, “so that one no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him.”

Descent into Hades
Descent into Hades [click to enlarge]

Among the insights Ratzinger proffers is a deeply pondered consideration of “hell.” He writes: “If there were such a thing as a loneliness that could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another; if a state of abandonment were to arise that was so deep that no ‘You’ could reach it anymore, then we should have real total loneliness and dreadfulness, what theology calls ‘hell’.”

Now, precisely by his descent into hell, Jesus confronts the radical isolation and deprivation that death entails. By his descent, he brings communion to those suffering the pain of estrangement. Such is the consummation of his passion for communion: Jesus, who knew no sin, drinks the cup of humanity’s sinful alienation from others and the Other to its bitter dregs, and makes of it a cup of blessing and thanksgiving.

Thus, Ratzinger contends, “in his Passion Christ went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. . . .Death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened.”

As Joseph Ratzinger would have hoped, his reflections sparked further reflection by those reading his book. The text itself does not explicitly broach the question of whether Christ’s descent into hell effects the salvation of all: the position traditionally termed “apocatastasis.” Many today would affirm that we may indeed “dare hope that all may be saved” (as a book by von Balthasar puts it); but they wisely refrain from any apodictic pronouncement.

In this vein, a thought emerged pondering the mystery of the descent. It relates to the great parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Christ’s descent among the dead, his presence with them in their terrible solitude, is akin to a silent embrace, a kiss not of betrayal, but of love and compassion. It offers forgiveness, restoration, and renewal. But the embrace may, at the last, be spurned and rejected. And the free creature may elect to turn away, shriveling inwardly to the point of non-being.

Forty years after the young Joseph Ratzinger delivered his splendid lectures, the aged Benedict XVI penned his magnificent encyclical Spe Salvi, on Christian hope. In it, he concedes that there may be “people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.” Tragically, such people might not repent even if someone rose from the dead.

Yet the final word remains hope. Not a self-centered hope, a private hope, but hope that’s radically communal, and hence truly Catholic. In words that still echo the discovery of de Lubac’s Catholicism, Benedict writes: “Our hope is always essentially hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”

The great Eastern icon of the Resurrection depicts the victorious Christ who descends to sheol. He firmly grasps the hands of our first parents, liberating them from their self-imprisonment. But the Christian imagination can also envision the sequel. Having released them from bondage, Jesus now turns them toward one another so that, after such long separation and hostility, they may once again embrace. The silent embrace of Holy Saturday, before they ascend together to Easter joy.

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Robert Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization.

  • Manfred

    Father: Thank you for sharing your opinions on the writings of de Lubac and Ratzinger. Would you consider reflecting on the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Saint Faustina, Lucia dos Sangtos, the seer of Fatima who was given a vision of Hell by the Mother of God? How about the words of Christ: “narrow the gate and difficult the road which leads to eternal life and few there are who find it”
    I know this is very difficult for many of the readers so opinions must be substituted for etefrnal truths. This has been going on for sixty years. Look at the effect it has had on your own Archdiocese with your Cardinal/Archbishop inviting sodomites to march as a group in a Saint’s parade. Only a fool would take these new ideas on Hell seriously.

    • rick

      I agree with Manfred. Dostoyevsky would too. Christ’s loving kiss referred to by Father Imbelli was intended by Dostoyevsky as irony. The Grand Inquisitor story was put by Dostoyesky into the words of the character Ivan, a Voltaire spouting agnostic who was secretly haunted by the possibility that God does in fact exist. Ivan’s Inquisitor conceals from humanity man’s God-given freedom. Even when confronted by the absolute certainty of God’s existence Ivan / the Inquisitor retains his certainty that God erred in giving man freedom. By kissing the Inquisitor and accepting the Inquisitor’s release ( as opposed to being stake-burned) Ivan’s Christ acknowledges Ivan’s / the Inquisitor’s belief that humans are incapable of being free. In Ivan’s story, in other words, God admits he was wrong. Dostoyevsky’s point was to reveal through irony the workings of the agnostic mind. Theologians who deny human freedom and the existence of hell should take heed they don’t fall into the same prideful trap as Ivan.

  • Alicia

    Where does Jesus’ going to hell in the Apostles Creed come from ? Why isn’t it in the Nicene Creed ? Is it from Sacred Tradition ? Did Jesus tell the apostles and they passed it on ?
    I’ve read and heard so many different interpretations that it’s clear that nobody really knows.
    My favorite one, from Fr. Apostoli on EWTN, is that because God had closed the gates of heaven after the original sin, all the good ones like Abraham, Moses, St. Anne, etc, were in a sort of waiting room, and Jesus went there, openned the gates of heaven for them and us, and let them in. By letting them in, he redeemed them and this is what redemption is.
    Will the theologians in TCT please explain how and why that phrase made it into the Apostles Creed?

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    You give a powerful presentation on desolation, eternal death, and salvation on the day that Jesus is said in the Creed to have descended into Hell. The burning question for many is whether Hell exists. As Fr Barron a recently appointed bishop believes, Hell was “emptied out.” You appear, unless I read you wrongly, to leave a nuance of hope that Hell in the end will dissolved as an effect of Christ’s Redemptive Act. Dostoyevsky’s “turning away and shriveling into non-being” relates to the view of some that dissolving Hell means dissolving the eternally lost “into non-being.” None of us know what the descent of Christ into Hell or sheol really means. However the freeing of prisoners from eternal death has efficacious meaning. At the death of Christ on the Cross an earthquake occurs, tombs shattered, and the dead rise from their graves. Certainly the Gospels indicate a release of prisoners from sheol making Descent and release viable. De Lubac and his protege von Balthasar held to a dissolution of Hell. Benedict XVI rightly associates the true meaning of descent for us as Christ’s mysterious and profound desolation on the Cross, “Eloi, Eloi! Lamma Sabacthani.” God in His infinite goodness is infinitely just. He created us in His image as immortal. He cannot extinguish what He thus created. His Justice abides to our choice. His cry “Eloi” is the call by Christ for our purification of the will, bereft of all consolation from things and a life of faith, not in sentiment but faith in His Word as spoken in the Gospels, of eternal death or eternal life.

    • Loretta Davi

      I wish our priests spoke on the Altar about these things weekly, to educate us, to give us hope, to give us thought, things to ponder. I know each of us could go to a bookstore and pick up a book, but it is not the same thing…

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Yes Loretta I agree there are many areas of the faith that are too often glossed over from the pulpit. In all the parishes I took as pastor there was a dearth of knowledge about fundamental Catholic teaching. The nonsense of chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts [I do have a soft side] too often overshadow the truth we need to know about judgment, redemption, and eternal life or eternal hell. Our faith is based on the words of Christ in the Gospels regarding the eternity of Heaven and Hell, not the sentimental musings of some Catholic thinkers, who erroneously seek to hijack the place of Christ as Teacher in what we are required to believe for our salvation.

        • Sheila

          Father, I just had a conversation (through email) almost verbatim to what you’ve said above with a very young and newly ordained priest in our diocese. I love this priest and several other young priests in our diocese. He mentioned chocolate bunnies once. 😊 I wrote back to thank him and then asked him why we aren’t being told from our priests at the pulpit about being faithful Catholics in all areas of our lives, especially with “sanctity of life” and voting issues. Abortion is a mortal sin and many Catholics vote for candidates who are for abortion. And then go to Holy Eucharist. With the ongoing elections many need to learn how to vote in a moral and catholic manner. I have not brought this up at my parish as I believe it would cause issues. Sad to say, many Catholics don’t know their faith. We are called to follow Jesus 24/7. Mind you, we aren’t perfect, but we need to learn how to shoot for the goal.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Sheila your plight is that of many laity. It’s good you spoke to this young priest. The faithful do well to encourage their priests to be more forthcoming regards important doctrine. Certainly the issue of voting for pro abortion candidates is very important and many don’t seem to realize their complicity. Prayer and encouragement.

    • Bobo Fett

      That was outstanding. Thank you for posting that.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        As said in Swahili Bobo Asante Sana.

    • michael ortiz

      The teaching of the Church has always held that Christ did not descend to the place of the damned, but to the righteous awaiting deliverance from his Cross.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Whatever is meant by Sheol Michael the word used in scripture we know it refers to the place of the dead, not necessarily infernal Hell as some interpret. Christ’s death on the Cross and Resurrection opened the gates of Heaven. Thus, at the moment Christ died, the earthquake, and persons who had previously died rising from their tombs, and walking among the living in Jerusalem, signifying the opening of the gates of Heaven to the worthy, certainly not the damned.

  • Joyfully


    Somehow, over the years of my meditative meandering, my imagination has taken His “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” as a “doorman” position. That, from his death he was the “first person” to reach the door to eternal life, and in doing so, opened the door and held it open for all who followed him – like the gentleman-God he is, and then locked and secured it after himself.

    I like this image because, historically in a well-manner and courteous society, gentlemen especially did this for women and young women for older women and so on and so forth. But always, there existed – and today the numbers are great – people who chose to be offended (rooted in pride) at another opening the door and refuse the gesture. So many things can be extrapolated from this imagery.

  • JohnW

    The idea that “all may be saved” is one of the pernicious and most
    damaging errors of the modern age. I suspect it is the reason the Lord
    took von Balthasar before he could receive his cardinal’s hat, so that,
    despite the immense worth of much of his work, a caution would be
    noted. We should hope, and passionately pray, that all now living are
    saved. There is no reason to hope that everyone who has already died
    was saved (which is different from praying for those in purgatory). I have no interest in hoping that Hitler was saved. His last act on earth was a mortal sin, preceded by many previous mortal
    sins. At what point might he have repented and been saved? If he was
    repentant at the last, would not he have called off the continuing
    holocaust and taken other actions to halt and remedy the damage he had caused
    rather than putting a bullet into his head?

    What makes us balk
    is the idea of endless suffering of the damned. But that is our
    sentiment, and forgets that although humans, unlike the fallen angels,
    are limited in understanding and weak, and so are given ample
    opportunity to repent, that at the end we can make the same irrevocable
    choice the devils made. So hope and pray that no one now living makes
    that choice. But because we have experienced repentance is no ground for presuming that everyone ultimately repents. Why they do not is a great unfathomable mystery, as is why the devils made the choice they did. The great preponderance of scripture and church tradition is that some make that irrevocable choice, without the possibility of which we would not be really free to choose to accept our salvation. The people who make that evil choice do not write books afterwards, and those who do write books, like von Balthasar, have never seen into the final state of the hearts who choose otherwise. It is and will remain forever a mystery to those who are saved why some do not accept salvation. But because we cannot understand them does not mean they do not exist. Jesus Himself taught the impassable gulf in the afterlife between Lazarus and the rich man. Do not take those words lightly.

    • Veritas

      We do not know the limits of the Mercy of God, nor do we perfectly understand the balance of Justice and Mercy. Like the brother of the prodigal, we can be left indignant by this.
      It does not seem from scripture that Hell has been emptied, but since we do not know, we can hope that those like Hitler found repentance in their last act. We can hope that the impassable gulf between Lazarus and the rich man was bridged by the Cross of Christ… Because, blessed are the merciful, they shall see mercy….but since we do not know, it is sufficient for us to repent and be reconciled to the love of God while we are able, and to pray for the same for others.

      I believe what Von Balthasar and others profess is a hope in the boundless, infinite Mercy of God to penetrate, in the last, even the hardest heart…. That is no different than your prayer for those still living

  • Howard Kainz

    In Christ’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus, he says there is an
    unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell (Luke 16:26). But some
    overly ambitious theologians want to build a bridge.

  • lwhite

    What does Sacred Scripture teach us about Hell? Here are just a few passages:

    John 15:6: “If any one abide not in Me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth.”

    Jude 6: “The angels too, who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains, in gloom, for the judgement of the great day.”

    Jude 7: “Likewise, Sodom, Gomorrah and the surrounding towns, indulged in fornication and practiced unnatural vice, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”

    Judith 16:20-21: “For the Lord Almighty will take revenge on them, in the day of judgment he will visit them. For he will give fire, and worms into their flesh, that they may burn, and may feel forevver.”

    Matt. 10:28: “And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.”:

    Matth. 13:42: “The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    2 Peter 2:4-9: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly from temptation, but to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be tormented. And especially them who walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government, audacious, self willed, they fear not to bring in sects, blaspheming.”

    Psalms 9:18 – “The wicked shall be turned into hell, all the nations that forget God.”

    1 Cor. 6:9-10:” Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God.”

    2 Thess. 1:8-9: “…in blazing fire, inflicting punishment on those who do not acknowledge God these will pay the penalty of eternal ruin, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power…”

  • Alexandra_kirschmitt

    Thank you for the article. I still prefer the Holy Father Benedict XVI’s teaching as pope in his 2007 Easter homily: ” In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23[24]: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 138[139]12).”

  • Alfonso Lievano

    Judgment is God’s privilege. Ours are hope, love and service
    Alfonso L

  • Sheila

    “what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation.”
    Thank you Father for this beautiful article today reflecting on Holy Saturday. It has given me two gifts. A deeper understanding of this day and then hope. We all pray for our own souls, souls of others we know and briefly meet, and of course for our own family members. The gift of Hope stirred in my heart as I read your article today. I believe I have never been more hopeful for my loved ones’ salvation than I am today. It is between Jesus and each soul. My Hope for everything, including this crazy election, rests in the hands of my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. I can pray, rest and leave it there with Him.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    My body and my heart faint for joy; God is my possession forever (Ps 73, Stanza III). That is the promise and joy of Easter. Satan’s strategy is to inspire disbelief that Hell is eternal, removing the compassionate urgency for us to pray and suffer for the conversion of sinners.


    Father, I love Benedict XVI – and have read many of his books. They have brought me to a greater love of Our Lord, His Mother, and the Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church. As such, I am deeply grateful to him, and make no bones about my regret at his abdication/resignation (what ever one calls it) as pope.

    I admit when I read Benedict ‘ Introduction to Christianity’, I seemed to have missed “Benedict’s deeply pondered consideration of “hell” “. At least, no ‘warning flags were raised’ for me at the time. One thing I am firmly convinced of, is that the Devil does exist – and that there is such a place as Hell – as some of the commenters here have so aptly demonstrated from Scripture. Just one caveat before I proceed with my comment: There may be a special context to Benedict’s thought you mentioned, in that it may refer specifically to those who died before the time of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, I am not referring to that period in my comment below.

    The Catholic Church has taught about the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. I know full well that I am capable of going to eternal Hell, not when I ‘feel’ isolated, abandoned, etc, but if and when I am in contradiction of, at minimum , the ten commandments. [ I do get that theologically, there can be degrees of culpability (that’s for a priest in the confessional and God to decide)]. As such, I am very conscious of “working out my salvation in fear and trembling” ( which consists in using the sacraments and other means the Church offers – such as Confession, the Eucharist, as well as the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament). By the way, there’s also a great joy in doing this as well.

    So what’s my point? Without going back to reading the context in which Benedict offered ‘his deeply pondered consideration’, I am concerned about the ’emotional’ or ‘sentimental tone’ of that statement. I say this because loss and abandonment are feelings- which can be based in reality or not . I am not denigrating feelings, – Our Lord Himself felt abandoned and loss. But where does the explicit reference to the ‘objectivity of sin’ and its objective disruption [if not severance, depending on the sin’s seriousness] of relationship to God – and the requisite repentance come in – with respect to what Benedict offered?

    I fear that beloved Benedict may have erred here, and inadvertently contributed to the sentiment which I see around me today as a disregard for sin, and the need for repentance. Repent and believe the Gospel were the first words of Our Lord in His Public Ministry. Isn’t it our duty to proclaim those very words? Can we at all truly experience the immense and infinite love of Our Lord if we are not open to repentance? Is this why we seem to have lost the great missionary thrust of the Church – calling men to repent and – come to know, love and serve Our Lord in this life, so that we can be happy with Him in the next?

    I must go back and re-read that section in Introduction to Christianity.

  • Guest

    A side question:

    When Cardinal Ratzinger wrote his catechism in 1967 he was not entirely opposed to Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. Did he change towards Teilhard as Pope Benedict XVI?

    • vs. Lincoln NB

      I have the same question. (Love learning more on Teilhard, much, much more.)

      Don’t have time now, to read all the Comments, but love the general drift of this, a whole new way to look at hell. A healthier approach IMO.

      So simple: Wouldn’t 99 3/4% of mothers want CONSTANT NEW CHANCES FOR CONVERSION for their own children? ALWAYS HOPING….

      Of course! So one more reason for me to think of God as loving Mother Nature, or maybe loving “Mother Universe”!

  • Harry

    After reading some of the remarks here, I think Catholics would do well to review the clear teachings of the Church as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the eternity of Hell, and on Christ’s descent into the place of the dead or “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek.

    On Christ’s descent into the place of the dead: see CCC #632 through #637

    On the Hell of the eternally damned: see CCC #1033 through #1037