“He descended into hell.”
The first meaning of this phrase from the Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus, like all men, truly died and his soul joined the souls of the just souls in the realm of the dead. However, Christ descended there as the Saviour, freeing the spirits imprisoned there. Holy Scripture tells us: “… He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison…” (1 Peter 3.18-19). On Holy Saturday morning, we commemorate Christ’s descent into “hell”. This “hell” is not the hell of the damned, but the state called “Abraham’s bosom” in Scripture (Luke 16.22-26), where the souls of the just, while deprived of the vision of God, awaited to be freed so as to enter in Heaven.
In her liturgy, the Church gives us the service of Tenebrae on Holy Saturday morning, in which, like the two Mary’s, we keep watch at the tomb, lamenting the death of our Lord, who suffered so much for our sins. But unlike those holy women at that time, we also commemorate Christ’s descent among the dead who frees the just from the chains of their “hell” so that they may enter into the glory of heaven. As we sing the words of the tenebrae service, we enter alternately into the lamentation of the holy women, and the mind of Christ descending and raising up the just souls who awaited their liberation. (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶¶ 632-635).
Click on the image above to listen to a recording of Tenebrae sung at St Jude’s Church, Vancouver, 2014.