Holy Saturday morning provides conflicting stories and conflicting emotions. Our hearts tell us Jesus is dead and buried in the garden tomb. But our creed tells us something quite different. Our creed, right after claiming, “He was crucified, died and was buried,” says “and He descended into Hell.” That sounds scary but Jesus is ultimately victorious..
The phrase “He descended into Hell” gets little attention, a phrase that makes more sense if we don’t pay attention to it. But generations past have contemplated it extensively. Over the years, Jesus’ descent has become known as “the harrowing of hell.” The images of that descent, though deeply puzzling, are quite magnificent. (Google images “Harrowing of Hell)
So what did Jesus do in Hell on Saturday morning? First, keep in mind that the place He visited was not what we think of as “Hell.” It is more like what we used to call “limbo” – the abode of the deceased just. Second, while in that realm, Jesus functioned as priest, prophet and king to all who dwelt there. With Jesus’ visit, the realm’s inhabitants became able to pray, i.e., to speak and listen to God. He consoled them with good news of their release and he challenged them to believe in Him. Jesus also included them in the communion of saints. Thus, from one perspective, Jesus was dead and powerless. From another, he was very much alive and at work as priest, prophet and king.
For Holy Saturday, the Liturgy of the Hours provides an ancient homily that invites us to consider – and savor – the truth of the harrowing of hell. Try if you can to apply your senses again – to imagine the sights and the sounds. And maybe follow one of the prominent ancient traditions – imagine that the first person Jesus greets is not Adam, but our very own patron, Saint Joseph.
The Lord's descent into hell
(from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday)
"What is happening? 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. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.
‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.
‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.
'See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.
`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 healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.
‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.
"The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages."
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