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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