“Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 633,
referencing the Council of Rome and Pope Benedict XII)
“Holy Saturday is the day when God remains hidden, we read in an ancient Homily: ‘What has happened? Today the earth is shrouded in deep silence, deep silence and stillness, profound silence because the King sleeps…. God has died in the flesh, and has gone down to rouse the realm of the dead’ (Homily on Holy Saturday, PG 43, 439 [cf Liturgy of the Hours, Second Reading for Holy Saturday]).” Every Sunday, in the Creed, we profess that Jesus Christ died, was buried, descended to the dead, and rose again.
Pope Benedict XVI tells us that “…humanity has become particularly sensitive to the mystery of Holy Saturday. The concealment of God is part of contemporary man’s spirituality, in an existential almost subconscious manner, like a void in the heart that has continued to grow larger and larger. Towards the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche wrote: ‘God is dead! And we killed him!’. This famous saying is clearly taken almost literally from the Christian tradition. We often repeat it in the Way of the Cross, perhaps without being fully aware of what we are saying. After the two World Wars, the lagers and the gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our epoch has become increasingly a Holy Saturday: this day’s darkness challenges all who are wondering about life and it challenges us believers in particular. We too have something to do with this darkness.
“Yet the death of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, has an opposite aspect, totally positive, a source of comfort and hope. And this reminds me of the fact that the Holy Shroud acts as a ‘photographic document,’ with both a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative.’ And, in fact, this is really how it is: the darkest mystery of faith is at the same time the most luminous sign of a never-ending hope. Holy Saturday is a ‘no man’s land’ between the death and the Resurrection, entered by One, the Only One, who passed through it with the signs of His Passion for man’s sake: Passio Christi. Passio hominis [Passion of Christ. Passion of man]…
“In this ‘time-beyond-time,’ Jesus Christ ‘descended to the dead.’ [These words mean] that God, having made himself man, reached the point of entering man’s most extreme and absolute solitude, where not a ray of love enters, where total abandonment reigns without any word of comfort: ‘hell.’ Jesus Christ, by remaining in death, passed beyond the door of this ultimate solitude to lead us, too, to cross it with him. “We have all, at some point, felt the frightening sensation of abandonment… what we fear most about death, just as when we were children we were afraid to be alone in the dark and could only be reassured by the presence of a person who loved us. …This is exactly what happened on Holy Saturday: the voice of God resounded in the realm of death. The unimaginable occurred: namely, Love penetrated ‘hell.’ Even in the extreme darkness of the most absolute human loneliness we may hear a voice that calls us and find a hand that takes ours and leads us out. Human beings live because they are loved and can love; and if love penetrated even the realm of death, then life also reached even there. In the hour of supreme solitude we shall never be alone: Passio Christi. Passio hominis.
“This is the mystery of Holy Saturday! Truly from there, from the darkness of the death of the Son of God, the light of a new hope gleamed: the light of the Resurrection….” (Adaptation of Pope Benedict XVI’s Meditation on the Shroud of Turin, May 2, 2010.)
“For those living in the land of the shadow of death,
a light has dawned.”
Art: Le Christ mort couché sur son linceul (Lying Christ on his shroud), Philippe de Champaigne, around 1654, CCA-SA; The Descent into Limbo, Master of the Osservanza, circa 1445, PD-US; both Wikimedia Commons.