Today Hades cries out groaning:
I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the souls I had held captive.
Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord! — Orthodox Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday
Great and Blessed Sabbath
The second reading in the Breviary’s Office of Readings comes from an ancient (2nd century) Christian homily from Holy Saturday. It’s absolutely stunning in its eloquence. The first paragraph leads us in to the inner sanctum of this day of waiting and terrible silence:
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.
The corpse of God lies asleep in the tomb on this Sabbath day, and the God-Man’s soul descends into the bowels of hell, as the Apostle’s Creed has it, descendit ad inferos. This descent, which is both the nadir of the “self-emptying” of God into the pit of humanity’s desperate plight and the beginning of His “harrowing” triumph over that plight, is also the descent of God into very roots of our history, into the “abode of the dead.”
In meditating on the rich meanings compressed into this liminal and often-overlooked feast, I have found Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s meditations to be most fruitful. That said, I ask you to kindly allow me share a portion of those meditations with you today for your own prayerful consideration. May your longing vigil through this day’s hours find you ready tonight to welcome the coming Risen One as He swallows up death in immortal triumph.
If a child had to venture out alone through a wood on a dark night, he would be afraid even if he were to be shown a hundred times that there was nothing to fear. He is not afraid of anything specific, to which he could put a name, but in the dark he feels insecure, an orphan, he feels the sinister character of inner existence. Only a human voice could console him; only the hand of a person he loves could banish the anguish, like a bad dream. There is an anguish – the true kind nesting in the profundity of our solitudes – which cannot be overcome by reason but only by the presence of a person who loves us. This anguish, in fact, doesn’t have an object to which we could put a name. It is the terrible expression of our ultimate solitude. Who among us has not felt the awful sensation of this state of abandonment? Who would not hear the blessed, comforting miracle worked in these circumstances by an affectionate word?
But wherever there is such solitude as to be inaccessible to the transforming word of love, then that is the place we call hell. And we know that not a few men of our time, so apparently optimistic, hold the view that every encounter remains superficial, that no man has access to the ultimate and true profundity of another and that, therefore, in the ultimate depths of every existence lies desperation, even hell. Jean-Paul Sartre expressed this poetically in one of his plays and at the same time he exposed the nucleus of his doctrine on man. One thing is sure: there will come a night when no word of comfort will penetrate the dark abandon, there will be a door which we must pass though in absolute solitude: the door of death. All this world’s anguish is, in the final analysis, the anguish generated by this solitude. This is why in the Old Testament, the word indicating the kingdom of the dead was identical to the word for hell: shêol. Death, in fact, is absolute solitude. But this solitude which can no longer be illumined by love, which is so profound that love can no longer reach it, is hell.
“Descended into hell” – this confession of Holy Saturday means that Christ passed through the door of solitude, that he descended into the unreachable and insuperable depth of our condition of solitude. This means, however, that also in that extreme night which no word penetrates, when we will all be like children, banished, weeping, there will be a voice that calls to us, a hand that takes our hand and leads us on. Man’s insuperable solitude was overcome from the moment He entered it. Hell was beaten from the moment love entered the region of death and the no man’s land of solitude was inhabited by him. In his profundity, man does not live by bread. In the authenticity of his being he lives by the fact that he is loved and is himself given the faculty to love. From the moment there is the presence of love in death’s sphere, then life penetrates death: life is not taken from your faithful, O Lord, but transformed, the Church prays in its funeral liturgy.
In the final analysis, no one can measure the portent of the words: “descended into hell”. But if at some time it is ours to draw near to the hour of our ultimate solitude, we will be given to understand something of the great clarity of this dark mystery. In the hopeful certainty that when the hour of extreme solitude comes we will not be alone, we can already, now, presage something of what will happen. And in the throes of our protest against the darkness of the death of God we begin to be grateful for the light that comes to us from this same darkness.