Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

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Between the horrors of Good Friday and the glorious brilliance of Easter Sunday, there is the mysterious and often-overlooked day of silence and stillness known as Holy Saturday.

Far from being a simple day of passive waiting, or a day of inaction and unimportance, this holy day marks the remembrance of one of the shocking and central mysteries of the life of Christ—His descent into Hell.

One ancient homily expertly expresses the solemn nature of this holy day: “Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh.” Even in His death, the Lord obeys the commandments. Jesus keeps holy the Sabbath as His body lays resting in the tomb the morning following His bloody crucifixion and death. 

Jesus truly died on Good Friday and thus His soul truly descended, like all who died before Him, into the realm of the dead, Hell. Prior to the Passion of Christ, the hope of Heaven had not been realized, for the gates of Paradise were closed to all who passed before the incarnate Lord.

Since the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the presence of God in Eden, the gates of Heaven were shut. Though created in union with the Lord, our first parents rejected this supernatural grace by their disobedience, separating themselves and all their children from God. The entire human race is born into a broken family, outside of Eden and out of union with the Lord. This we understand as Original Sin.

For all who died before the redeeming Passion of Christ, the gates of Heaven, the joy of eternal union with the Lord, were closed off and inaccessible. The broken relationship between God and man had not yet been healed by the God-man, Jesus Christ, so there was no way for man to be united with the Lord after death. Even the righteous, the heroes of old, named and unnamed, were unable to ascend to the glory of Heaven. So, all deceased souls plummeted into the realm of the dead, called Hell, as they awaited the advent of the Savior.

Like all before Him, the Lord’s soul descended into Hell; however, our Lord’s soul, united to His divine Person, plunges into the underworld with no intention of remaining there. Jesus goes into the depths of the dead to bring life and resurrection. He goes to save, to proclaim the Good News to the righteous who died before Him, and to bring them to life. He goes to plunder and harrow Hell.

To be clear, the Lord did not descend into the Hell of the damned to free those who had freely separated themselves from God for eternity. Those souls made their choice to reject the Lord. No preaching of the Gospel unto them, even after death, would soften their perpetually hardened hearts.

On this Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into a particular portion within the realm of the dead, what is traditionally called the limbo of the fathers or the bosom of Abraham. It is to the righteous souls there, beginning with our first parents, Adam and Eve, that the Lord goes to awaken and set free. These are the souls that He reaches down to, so that He might draw them up into eternal life.

The famous homily of old for Holy Saturday describes with beauty this subterranean ministry of Christ: “Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.” 

Just like He explained in the parable of the strong man, before entering a strong man’s house, the owner must first be bound. So, before entering the realm of the dead to plunder its goods, Jesus binds the strong man, the devil, with His sacrificial death on the cross. He has conquered evil and death, and the Lord plunges into the realm of the dead “holding his victorious weapon, his cross,” robbing the underworld of all its righteous dead. The Good Shepherd goes after His lost sheep, all of them, no matter the distance to which He must descend. 

This final stage in Christ’s messianic mission is not simply a historical event worth remembering. Like Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the redemptive action of Christ on Holy Saturday has meaning and affects us today. The Lord desires the salvation of all. He has gone to, and continues to go to, drastic lengths to be generous with His grace and mercy. As St. Paul explains, neither height nor depth can separate us from the love of Christ. Not even death can separate us from the Lord. 

Only sin can separate us from Christ, sin for which we are not sorry and that we do not repent of. The harrowing of Hell proves the incredible mercy of God, the fact that not all are freed proves His justice. The Lord desires to redeem all, but He will not save those who do not wish to be saved. He cannot. It goes against His nature and His love.

On this blessed and solemn day, we are invited to remember the deep, burning desire the Lord has for our salvation. We are also invited to remember the very real consequences of our sin. Jesus Christ, the conqueror of sin and evil, the great liberator of the dead, seeks to awaken and free us, too. Even in the silence, perhaps especially in the silence, the Lord is at work bringing His grace and mercy. This was true 2,000 years ago, and it is true today.

The shock and horror of Good Friday has passed. The unbelievable and overwhelming joy of Easter morning has not yet dawned. Today there is a great silence and stillness because our King is asleep. But, even while asleep, our King is working.

By

Hunter Leonard is a passionate Catholic with an intense love for learning about and sharing the Faith. He holds an M.A. in Theology from the Augustine Institute and a B.A. in Creative Writing from California State University at Northridge. Hunter's essays, articles, and poems have been featured at Busted Halo, St. Austin Review, and Voyage Comics. He is a staff columnist at Catholic Stand and works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church.

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