Holy Saturday – 15 April – The Lord’s descent into hell
The Creed proclaims “He descended into Hell.” This homily for Holy Saturday from the 4th Century treats of the “harrowing of hell” and the rescue of Adam and Eve. Note the parallels between Adam and Eve’s sin, which lost paradise for us and the passion of Christ, which won for us not simply an earthly paradise, but eternal life. It was to the Limbo of the Fathers that Christ descended, a place of the dead that was emptied through His Passion, Resurrection and Ascension and no longer exists. By this “Harrowing of Hell,” as His Descent is sometimes called, the doors to Heaven were swung open so that those who die in a state of grace may enter in, alleluia! Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, the good thief on the cross — all the righteous were illuminated by the Presence of Christ in the place of death, making Sheol itself a paradise. They remained there with Him until His Bodily Resurrection when the the “bars of Hell” were broken down and they were later able to enter into Heaven itself with His glorious Ascension.
“What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
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.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.
‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.
‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.
‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.
‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.
‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.
`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 healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.
‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.
“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”
A reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday – prepared by Pontifical University Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rome. While it appears that this comes from a Holy Saturday homily written in Greek dating back to the fourth century liturgy (PG 43, 439, 462f), the author of this text is unknown.
For our Edification – what does Hell mean?
Christ is in His tomb. Rather, His Body is in the tomb but when His Soul left His Body, He descended into Hell to “free the captives.” “Hell” here refers to the place of the dead in general (“Sheol” in the Hebrew, or “Hades” in the Greek), not to the place of torment with which the word “Hell” is most usually associated with today. The world “Hell” in the loosest, earliest sense includes:
1. the Limbo of the Fathers
, the place for those who were righteous by charity and faith in the coming Messiah and who died before His Coming
2. the Limbo of Infants, where, possibly, those who are sent who die without personal guilt but without Baptism after the time of Christ, or who died without charity and faith in the coming Messiah before the time of Christ. This would be a place of beautiful, natural happiness, no punishment and no sensible suffering.
3. Purgatory, where righteous people go to be cleansed of the temporal effects of their sins
4. Gehenna, the “Hell of the Lost,” the eternal place of punishment for the damned, the place we usually refer to as simply “Hell” today
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