Each Holy Week, there are numerous liturgical events that fill the parish calendar. Yet, one essential aspect of the salvific work of Jesus is generally ignored and obscures the full meaning of Easter.
Holy Thursday focuses on the institution of the Eucharist and Holy Orders, and Good Friday services center around the Cross through Stations, the reading of the Passion, and Veneration. But what of that time between the end of the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday afternoon and the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday? Other than the tradition of blessing baskets of food, what makes Holy Saturday, well, holy?
For starters, the Apostles’ Creed tells us that there is something very important between “was crucified, died, and was buried” and “on the third day He rose from the dead.” This statement of our Faith holds one of the strangest lines in all Catholic theology, and it goes almost completely unnoticed: “He descended into Hell.”
Those who have ever paid attention to this line may have asked themselves or others: Why did Jesus descend into Hell? Those who have never noticed this line might be asking that question now.
The answer is relatively unknown, yet essential to understanding the whole purpose of the Paschal Mystery. The explanation goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and our first parents. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden was a by-product of their sin, as was their mortality. Death, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, is what we earn because of our sin: “The wages of sin is death.” Adam and Eve died in their sin and descended into the “place of the dead,” called by the Greeks “Hades” and by the Hebrews “Sheol.” In English, Hades and Sheol are translated as Hell.
At the moment of His death, Jesus went to the place of the dead Himself. Once there, He, as St. Peter writes in his first letter, “preached the Good News to the dead” and freed them from the hold that death had upon them. This, in English, is often called the “harrowing of Hell,” using an Old English term for plundering or violently removing that which is valuable.
The rescue of the souls in the underworld is cryptically spoken of by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel when Peter is told, “Upon this rock, I will build My Church, and the gates of the Netherworld shall not prevail against it.” In the harrowing of Hell, Jesus ransoms the souls that had been kidnapped by death and, breaking through the gates, delivers them to their Father in Heaven.
As the Church’s Father St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but he arose accompanied by a multitude; and rent asunder that means of separation which had existed from the beginning of the world, and cast down its partition-wall.”
One can’t help but recall the words of St. Matthew about the strange occurrences in Jerusalem as Jesus breathed His last: “And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
The Holy Week service known as Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness”) is as close as we get to a Harrowing of Hell liturgy. In it all candles are eventually extinguished, and the congregation produces a strepitus or “great noise” by banging hymnals on the pews and stamping their feet to recreate the earthquake that accompanied the death of Jesus.
After the darkness of Tenebrae, the Church proceeds the next day to the Easter Vigil. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah spoken of by St. Matthew when he wrote, “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” Darkness and death, the only weapons of Hades, are defeated, and that, to paraphrase the great theologian Linus Van Pelt, is the full meaning of Easter.