Does not God, as Gregory the Great so justly saw, englobe, by his own ever greater depth, all the deep places of the underworld? He who is higher than heaven is also ‘inferno profundior quia transcendendo subvehit’. … But in that case it is he who sets the limits to the extension of damnation, who forms the boundary stone marking the place where the lowest pitch is reached and the reverse movement set into operation. (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 166–67)
Holy Saturday is the most precious day of the church year to me. It is a quiet caesura in the high drama of the Triduum. It may pass even without our noticing it, busy as we all are with the transition from Good Friday to the Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day beyond. But Holy Saturday commemorates the most amazing and sublime part of Jesus’ passion. On Holy Saturday, Jesus was in hell.
Belief in Jesus’ descent into hell comes about quite soon after Jesus dies. St. Paul alludes to it when remarking in his letter to the Ephesians that “[Jesus] has also descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9). The first letter of St. Peter also refers to it, saying, “But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does” (1 Peter 4:5-8). And in the Apostles’ Creed, a formulary of the early church associated particularly with baptism (which Episcopalians and Anglicans continue to confess at the Daily Office and at Baptism), we find the line, “Et in Jesum Christum … descendit ad inferna [He descended into hell].”
As many of you know, I spent much of my childhood terrified of hell, even though I was raised as a Christian. When I discovered the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar as a seminarian and graduate student in theology, it was the most amazing balm to my terrified soul. Von Balthasar’s great intervention in twentieth-century theology was to remind the Church that the paschal mystery includes not just the fact that Jesus died, nor even just that Jesus rose on the third day, but that in between, Jesus descended into hell. When I said that in Christ, God dives headlong into the very worst that human life has to offer, this is what I meant: in Christ, God dives headlong even into hell, even into the condition of the absence of God. In doing so, Jesus sets it all en route back to God, back to the one he calls ‘Father.’ At the height of Jesus’ passion, “he who is higher than heaven is also ‘inferno profundior’ [lower than hell]”
As von Balthasar puts it elsewhere, “it follows that the Cross must be erected at the end of hell” (Theo-Drama IV, 495). Subsequent to Holy Saturday, there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere we cannot find God (Psalm 139:8). Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Rest: Jesus’ ‘rest’ among the dead and damned was restorative of the whole creation. What is God bringing back to life in you today as you rest?