This is an enigmatic day wrapped in an unpopular doctrine. The day: The Church universal has always remembered Christ’s descent “into Hell,” per the fifth article of the Apostles Creed. The enigma is bound with the question: “Why would God send Jesus to Hell?” The unpopular doctrine is Hell itself.
Perhaps the enigma becomes more palatable — and yet, more confusing — when we remember that Christ would have descended into Hades, which was the general realm of the dead. The New Testament suggests Hades is divided into two domains: the fortunate dwell in “Abraham’s bosom;” the less fortunate are, well, not very fortunate (see Luke 16:19-31). It’s hellish for them.
We’d face no real dilemma if Christ spent a few hours among the fortunate. Problem solved.
Or not. 1 Peter 3:19-20 says Jesus preached to the “spirits in prison” because “they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” (ESV).
Maybe I’m mentally near-sighted when it comes to this passage, but I can’t get around Christ doing a stint in the hellish province of Hades, the area we want to avoid. True, it’s an enigmatic pair of verses involving an enigmatic day — somehow tied up in the pre-historical days of Noah — but it underscores how Christ endured a real death, a death releasing us from death itself.
As for the unpopular doctrine of Hell, which designates an abode of eternal alienation from God, I can only say this: I don’t like Hell either. I also don’t like hail and sleet, but inclement weather exists whether I like it or not. I’m sure hail and sleet would be voted out of office if they reported to an electorate, but they don’t. They’re real. We must deal with them.
But all of the above is a prelude to an ancient meditation on Holy Saturday, written by Anonymous and published in today’s Liturgy of the Hours. I’ve shamelessly copied the piece because it conveys Christ’s redemptive act:
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
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. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.