Black Saturday: Jesus’ Descent into Hell

harrowing of hell

We usually associate Black Saturday as the day when God did nothing because God is dead. And so in the church, there is no Eucharist. Today is mostly a day of silence, sitting, and waiting. That’s how it is the morning after the burial.

But far from doing nothing, God is doing a very important mission.

Holy Saturday is when Christ descended into hell. In hell, Jesus was busy rescuing people from death and sharing with them the victory of his resurrection. We always recite in the creed every Sunday mass that after Jesus died on the cross “he descended into hell”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this:

By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14) [#636]. In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him [#637].

Even in death, Jesus was at work. Death did not stop the mission of Jesus’ redemption. On the contrary, death unleash the final act of Jesus’ redemption–Jesus destroying death not just for himself but for all humanity.

Jesus’ mission in hell is wonderfully depicted in an icon more popular in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This is the icon of Harrowing of Hell.[1] Although this icon is not popular in the Western tradition today, the message of this icon was commonly proclaimed in the ancient and medieval period of Western Christianity by many church fathers like Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and many others. Harrowing is an old English word which means harvesting. Thus, we can also call this icon as the harvesting of souls in hell.

In the icon, we see Jesus standing on the broken gate of hell. Hell is the dark pit at the bottom of the icon. In some icons, we can even see angels binding Satan in hell. Then we see Jesus pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths; imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe. On both sides of the icon are figures from the Old Testament like Abel, King David, Moses, prophets and many others waiting for Jesus to rescue them from hell. We can also see broken locks and keys used by Jesus to unlock the tombs of those souls living in hell.

The message of the icon is also beautifully expressed in an ancient homily, of unknown authorship, usually entitled The Lord’s Descent into the Underworld that is the second reading at Office of Readings on Holy Saturday .

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 we prepare for the great commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection at Easter Vigil tonight, let us continue to prepare ourselves to rise up with Jesus in victory.

Here’s a video explanation of the Icon of Christ’s Resurrection


 

[1]Joel J. Miller, “The harrowing of hell and the victory of Christ,” Patheos, March 30, 2013. Accessed 25/03.2018 at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joeljmiller/2013/03/the-victory-of-christ-and-the-harrowing-of-hell/

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Good Friday: Liberation is Accomplished

good-friday

We are on our second day of the triduum. Today’s liturgy is called Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion. We don’t have a mass today. Instead, we have a liturgy which is made up of three parts: the Liturgy of the Word at which the Passion of Christ according to St. John is proclaimed and which ends with the Solemn Intercessions, the Adoration of the Holy Cross and Holy Communion.

Yes, this is the only day throughout the year where the church does not celebrate the Eucharist. There is also no wedding, baptism, confirmation and certainly no ordination. In fact, there are only two sacraments that are offered on this day: Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. These sacraments truly underscore the meaning of this day and point to the reason why we call this Friday good: We call this Good Friday because it is a day of renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation.

There are so many things about Good Friday, however, that we do not get. Indeed, Good Friday is a day of paradoxes. All four gospels openly tell of the passion of Jesus as a story of contradictions. It depicts Jesus proclaimed as king with a crown of thorns, a staff and clothed in a purple cloak. The soldiers spat on him and struck him on the head with the staff repeatedly. The people who shouted hosanna to our king when Jesus entered Jerusalem just a few days ago are the same people who shouted “Crucify him!” and elected Barabas to be released on the day of Passover. The greatest of these ironies is the cross. Jesus on the cross with the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” died of a slow, painful, excruciating, gruesome, and humiliating death.

But the contradiction is ours. The irony is on us.

Franciscan Fr. Ron Rolheiser says that we tend to misunderstand “the passion of Jesus”. Spontaneously we think of it as the pain of the physical sufferings he endured on the road to his death. We are not helped by gruesome cultural depiction of Jesus’ passion like Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” This is also reinforced by our own Good Friday observances like the carrying of wooden crosses, crawling on rough pavement, self-flagellation and the re-enactment of actual crucifixion like the one in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga.

This is not to downplay the brutality of Jesus’ pain but Rollheiser explains that what the evangelists focus on is not the scourging, the whips, the ropes, the nails, and the physical pain. They emphasize rather that, in all of this, Jesus is alone, misunderstood, lonely, isolated, without support, unanimity-minus-one. What’s emphasized is his suffering as a lover; the agony of a heart that’s ultra-sensitive, gentle, loving, understanding, warm, inviting, and hungry to embrace everyone but which instead finds itself misunderstood, alone, isolated, hated, brutalized, facing murder..[1]

Every Good Friday, we listen to John’s passion account—the longest of all four gospels. Unlike in other gospels, John portrays Jesus as victorious and in control of the whole situation. Franciscan Fr. John Boyd-Boland explains that John’s Jesus longs for the cup of suffering; he is determined to drink the “cup” of his death because this act is the ultimate in love, and reveals God’s love for us all. Then in his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus stands totally in command of the situation and Annas is left bewildered and confused. Having been struck on the face by the Temple police, Jesus is left totally composed after the incident. He replies that his teaching has always been open and explicit, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Here the prisoner interrogates his interrogator! Finally, upon the Calvary cross, Jesus dies with majestic assurance.

In openly depicting Jesus’ passion, suffering and death, are not the evangelists actually proclaiming that in a world of hatred, violence, and falsehood, truth, love, and goodness reigns? By showing Jesus’ resoluteness and benevolence up to the end, are not the evangelists decrying the travesty of worldly powers and pretentious kings instead? Could we have missed the greatest irony which the evangelists have employed?

We live in a world today not much different from the world when Jesus lived—a world full of contradictions and sufferings: Innocent and good people continue to suffer, the gap between the rich and the poor continue to widen, there is plenty of innocent killings, gender and racial discrimination continues, poverty and violence reigns. In the midst of the contradictions and suffering, the temptation is to go low and become like the worldly powers that supports and preserves these contradictions—violent, tyrannical, prejudiced, vindictive, manipulative and deceitful.

Following Jesus example, we need to embrace these paradoxes while standing true to ourselves. Sometimes we need to accept opposition to choose community; sometimes we need to accept bitter pain to choose health; sometimes we need to accept a fearful free-fall to choose safety; and sometimes we need to accept death in order to choose life. If we let fear stop us from doing these, our lives will never be whole again.

This is what Jesus has accomplished when he proclaimed in his last words in the gospel: “It is finished.” Jesus leads us to love, forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation despite the violence and brutality around him. God’s way is integration, reconciliation and communion. By his dying, Jesus reconciled once again heaven and earth.

As St. Paul proclaims,

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (I Cor 1: 27 – 28).

Yes, ironically but perfectly, liberation is accomplished through God’s death. Liberation is accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross.


[1]Ron Rolheiser, OMI, The Agony in the Garden – The Special Place of Loneliness, February 22, 2004. Accessed 16/03/18 at http://ronrolheiser.com/the-agony-in-the-garden-the-special-place-of-loneliness/#.WqsieUxuI2w