Fr Billy Swan
It is quite common that people wish you a ‘Happy Easter’ as they are leaving the Good Friday ceremonies, as if Easter had already arrived with just the vigil and Easter Sunday left to celebrate. In most parishes, Holy Saturday is a day of preparation of our churches for the vigil and a free morning without Mass. What all this amounts to is a neglect of Holy Saturday as an integral part of holy week and a weak appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ by his descent among the dead, into the silence and emptiness that so many experience. Honouring Holy Saturday is to appreciate that there is a time of waiting between the agony of Good Friday and when joy returns on Easter Sunday. For most people, this is how they experience life. The agony of death, war, famine and bereavement are not wounds that heal in an instant. They take time. This is why the spirituality of Holy Saturday must not be overlooked.
An analogy might help here. Recently I took an early morning walk where I climbed to the top of a small mountain. As the sun rose in the east, the rays of its light shot out horizontally to illuminate the plains and the hills beneath me. But the valleys and glens below were still pools of darkness and mist. Only when the sun rose higher could its light pierce these pools of shadow and reveal what was within them.
For many Christians, their faith is a source illumination and a source of meaning. It sheds light on things and appears a good fit with how we experience life to be. We nod in agreement with C.S. Lewis who once said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” But that is not the full story. The light of our faith does not always penetrate deep down into places and at times in life when there are pools of darkness. A bereavement, a suicide of a friend or family member, another natural disaster, the outbreak of war, a sickness – these are times when there is no quick fix or smug answers to big questions.
Before the trumpets and jubilation of Easter Sunday, there must be a painful waiting and silence as Christ is placed in a dark tomb and enters into solidarity with those who are most abandoned or forsaken. A spirituality of Holy Saturday is to live in the hope that despite the suffering and the pain of darkness that so many experience in this world, God’s love and reach is deep enough to prevail over every evil . It is to know that Christ’s descent to the dead is the end point of his love that was emptied out on the cross in mercy for all humanity.
The Church believes that Christ descended into hell after his death. This is made clear the Catechism where it states:
‘The gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places’ (para. 634).
But it is also true that Jesus experienced the terrible reality of hell before his death on the cross as he cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). This means that on the cross, Jesus experienced the full and terrible weight of apparent abandonment by the Father. Because Jesus freely bore our sins out of love on the cross, he was inflicted with the full reality of sin in all its naked horror. This is what St Paul meant when he explained to the Corinthians that God ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor. 5:20-21). If sin is separation from God, then on the cross, Jesus knew what it meant to be utterly separated from God – an experience that caused him to cry out from the bottom of his soul in terrible anguish. In this sense, von Balthasar explains, Christ descended into hell, not just after his death but before it too.
The implications of this redemptive power of God are immense. With modern communications and our knowledge of history, we are familiar with horrific examples of man’s inhumanity to man in wars, murders, the horrors of torture, human trafficking and many more examples of depravity inflicted on human lives. Despite how incomprehensible and dark these stains on our history have been, their victims have new hope because of Christ’s descent into hell. The worst cruelty of humanity has been endured by God himself and has been conquered by the best of God’s mercy, made possible by Jesus’ descent into the depths of human darkness and despair. Such was the depths of God’s love that he sent his beloved Son to suffer with and for those who had strayed furthest away in order to include them in the life-giving embrace of God and raise them up to new hope.
This is why we must honour Holy Saturday because by doing so we proclaim that the crucified one lives and is present amidst all the suffering and the grip of hell where many live daily. It is a call for all Christians to share more deeply in the world’s suffering, god-forsakeness and dying like Jesus the Master. It is a call for the Church to be patient and sometimes silent before it can offer hope to the world. This is because our God is no stranger to darkness and suffering. Therefore no one who has passed away or no one crushed by suffering is beyond the reach of God’s saving love.
St Therese of Lisieux once wrote that: ‘in order that love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that it lower itself’ (Story of a Soul). By his suffering and death on the cross, this is what the love of Jesus did – it lowered itself, even to the depths of hell. Out of love for all humanity, both living and dead, our crucified God plummeted the depths of anguish in order to save the lost and raise them back to Himself. On the cross he bridged the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. At Easter time we thank him from our hearts for including us in such an embrace of mercy. Because of Christ’s descent into hell, no one is beyond the reach of God’s unfathomable love.