And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
Born of the Virgin Mary
Suffered Under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified, died and was buried
He descended into Hell
Today, Holy Saturday, as we anticipate the glorious resurrection of Jesus, we remember the mystery of His descent into the realm of the dead descensus ad inferos or His descent into hell as we profess in the Apostles Creed. The belief in this mystery comes to us from Scripture where St. Peter, in his first epistle writes:
Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is eight souls were saved by water. (1 Pet 3:17-20)
First and foremost, what is the realm of the dead? It has many names as revealed to us in Scripture. The most known title for the realm of the dead is hell, which is an old english term that speaks about the realm of the dead. Another title for the realm of the dead is sheol. This is the place for the dead who are waiting. The Fathers of the Church would call this Limbo. Hades is another word used for sheol. Lastly, Gehenna is the term used to describe the place of the damned: the afterworld of the unjust where souls suffer eternal fire. In the time of Jesus, it would be the term used to describe a dumping ground. Essentially, the Church has come to describe the realm of the dead as a prison, where one waits and suffers.
Over the centuries, this mystery has been developed most recently and notably by Hans Urs von Balthasar and his contemporary Adrienne Von Speyr who influenced von Balthasar’s thought. She describes Jesus’ pains of abandonment in hell. He bases his understanding of the mystery of Jesus’ descent on St. Paul’s kenotic love of God found in his letter to the Philippians:
Though he was in the form of God did not deem equality with God…but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. (Phil 2:6-7)
In the 2nd reading from the Office of Readings today, we read an ancient homily for Holy Saturday which explains this self-emptying love as He preaches to Adam and Eve our first parents:
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
As a result, Jesus’ descent into the realm of the dead becomes the natural consequences of His incarnation, identifying with us sinners though not having sinned Himself and therefore fulfilling the salvific mission that He was sent to do: He redeemed us by His self-emptying love.
Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sake, descended into hell for our sake in order to free us from our enslavement to sin and make us free children of God. As we approach the most holy Easter Season and we see the symbols of light and water, and meditate upon them, let us remember that Christ is our Light and that He has bathed us in His blood and water which poured forth from His side so that we can partakers of His divine nature and abide with Him in heaven.