After the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday until the Easter Vigil, time seems to stand still. The Paschal Fast, which begins with Good Friday and continues on Holy Saturday until the Vigil helps us enter into this “between time” of waiting for the Lord’s Resurrection. Yet this “between time” is full of meaning. We read in the Gospel of Luke how, after Jesus was laid in the tomb and a great stone was rolled against the entrance to the tomb, and everyone went away, while Mary Magdelene and the other Mary were left sitting opposite the tomb as if keeping watch (Matthew 27.61). Little did they know something wonderfully mysterious was taking place.
“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).
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 and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, 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 Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” (An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday PG 43,440A,452C)