Between the dramatic events of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, one important Christian verity often gets lost: the mystery of Holy Saturday.
Traditionally, Holy Saturday is associated with the “He descended into hell” of the Apostles’ Creed. Souls of the dead, awaiting the Incarnation and the proclamation of the gospel, are visited by the Soul and Divinity of Jesus as his sacred Body lay in the tomb. They are offered the redemption that they long desired but had no way of experiencing. (Incidentally, the theology of Holy Saturday is not a theology of Purgatory, which is a post-Resurrection reality.)
The theology of Holy Saturday was revivified in the twentieth century by Pope St. John Paul II and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Says Balthasar, “The Christ of Holy Saturday is the consummate icon of what God is like.” This is a God who does not rest in the face of needy souls. God makes good his promises, fulfills his covenant, reveals himself to all.
Christ penetrates the “depths of the earth (Eph. 4:9),” to the souls of men in the place of the dead (Sheol). It is an unrestricted redemption, an extension of the Cross on which he died. No particular condition is omitted in the total reconciliation that Jesus Christ effects with and for the Father. As Aidan Nichols, O. P., has said, “The Church’s confession of the mystery of the “descent into hell” draws attention to the unlimited character of this self-giving whose effects reach the immortal elements–the “souls” . . . of the departed.”
But it also needs to be recalled that Jesus is despoiling hell or hades. This hades would like to keep Jesus, too, but he is wrecking it. After all, “The gates of hell shall not prevail . . . .”(Mt. 16:18) The realm of the dead loses its power in the descent of Jesus. So Balthasar, “a voracious power is obliged to recognise its impotence to hold its prey.” Hence, the old term, the “Harrowing of Hell.”
Consequently, the Resurrection through which the Father proclaims the vindication of the Son’s sacrifice, brings up from “hell” beloved souls: lives united with his Heart through fidelity and perseverance (e.g., the first Adam), and “those souls in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) who have made provisional decisions against God in their lives long past (cf. also 1 Peter 4:6).
There is nothing wrong with casting this event of sacred history also in the mode of a more contemporary “realized eschatology.” That is, Christ is always penetrating the depths of the soul and of death to redeem and enliven his Beloved. Christ does not refrain from penetrating the depths of evil present in the world in order to redeem. This is important, since both John Paul II and Balthasar are driven to their interest in Holy Saturday due, in no small measure, to their common experience of the horrors of the twentieth century, especially the “man-made mass death” of totalitarian movements. So, it is as the psalmist has written,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Ps. 139: 7-12)
It must be noted that Balthasar points out a further, even more existential, dimension of the Holy Saturday event. Of course, Christ’s descent into hell is an extension of the condescension into human form of the Son of God, known in the Incarnation. But now this condescension is seen to reach into a condition that we scarcely know how to describe: dwelling as a soul apart from the body–that is, the condition of death. Christ’s “solidarity with the dead” is an overlooked facet of Holy Saturday–a more somber and wistful facet.
What is it like to be dead? That is, for the soul to be without the body which has given it all of its information and experience? The main character of John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius gives us a clue. The old man exclaims after death:
Ah! whence is this? What is this severance?
This silence pours a solitariness
Into the very essence of my soul;
And the deep rest, so soothing and so sweet,
Hath something too of sternness and of pain.
For it drives back my thoughts upon their spring
By a strange introversion, and perforce
I now begin to feed on myself,
Because I have nought else to feed upon.–
Am I alive or dead? I am not dead,
But in the body still; for I possess
A sort of confidence which clings to me,
That each particular organ holds its place
As heretofore, combining with the rest
Into one symmetry, that wraps me round,
And makes me man; and surely I could move,
Did I but will it, every part of me
And yet I cannot to my sense bring home
By very trial, that I have the power.
Tis strange; I cannot stir a hand or foot,
I cannot make my fingers or my lips
By mutual pressure witness each to each,
Nor by the eyelid’s instantaneous stroke
Assure myself that I have a body still.
Nor do I know my very attitude,
Nor if I stand, or lie, or sit, or kneel.
The aftermath of death, we are given to believe, is a terrifying experience of disorientation. Christ’s sharing of this sort of dislocation is of a piece with his sharing of every other experience of humanity during his days in the flesh, for he is “like us in all things but sin” (Council of Chalcedon).
In many parishes, Holy Saturday will be a day of bustle and preparation as the myriad details of the Easter Vigil consume the attention of the good people who make these celebrations happen. Nevertheless, it is imperative that some recognition of Holy Saturday in its specific dignity should take place. It could be a rosary in the cemetery, the Divine Office for Holy Saturday, special prayers for the dead, or any number of things public or private.
Holy Saturday is the day of the year in which the Eucharist is not offered publicly. This does not so much signal the absence of God as his presence in the most extreme circumstances of the human condition. After this short period of silence and apparent absence, the whole cosmos will, in fact, be re-created; the whole world’s “Alleluia” resounding to the glory of the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit.