Holy Saturday: Grand Silence, or Great Struggle?

First things first: yes, I do know that I am writing within the Octave of Easter, at least for Western Christians, not in the middle of the Triduum.  But with Holy Saturday only a week past (and being celebrated today in Eastern churches), I keep returning to a liturgy I shared in on that day, with the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem in Vézelay, France.  This particular Triduum liturgy took place mid-day on Holy Saturday and was titled “Office de la Descente aux Enfers.”  Given that the Communities of Jerusalem are influenced, inter alia, by Eastern, particularly Byzantine liturgical traditions, the celebration of this office was not surprising in and of itself.  What did surprise me was what difference the image of a Christ descending into hell and freeing captives offered spiritually.  This image was quite different from the image of the silence of Holy Saturday, with its focus on a dead Christ, entombed, awaiting resurrection. Instead, the image of the Christ who “harrows hell” on Holy Saturday is a startlingly vibrant one, as Christ descends, breaks open the doors of the underworld, and leads forth the just who have died.

Eastern iconography and the liturgical tradition to which it belongs make much more of this vision of Holy Saturday than their Western counterparts.  In the East, the Harrowing of Hell (or: Hades) is the traditional iconography for Holy Saturday, and its theme is carried forward into the iconography of the Resurrection.  The traditional icons of the Resurrection image Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell, victorious and resurrected, pulling Adam and Eve out of Hades.

I realize that we struggle today to articulate the meaning of Jesus’s cross and resurrection to our contemporaries (and sometimes to ourselves?), never mind adding that Christ also “descended into hell.”  But at least last Saturday, I found the focus, in worship, on Christ’s great struggle to redeem even the past deeply moving, more so than any contemplation of the silence of the grave on Holy Saturday.  And given the many hells of our own times and making, I for one welcomed the image of Christ’s descent and battle for life, even for those long gone. 

5 comments

  1. It may help to recall the revolutionary verse that opens the Gospel of St Mark: “The beginning of the gospel [euangeliou] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. An euangeliou was the news of a great conqueror’s victory; imagine how news of the victories of Alexander the Great’s successors and their successors would be spread in that literary form in that region.

    The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel comes with great force to tear open (the mandorla used in icons may be a good way to imagine this) the barrier between heaven and earth: it happens at his baptism and at his crucifixion, in a a special bookending feature of Mark’s gospel account. Jesus wrestles with the force of Death and evil in between and smites/tramples down Death by his own death.

    And that’s the good news.

    As many here know, the process of dying is rarely easy: most people seem to die too soon or too late, and dying is typically hard (unless death is caused by sudden trauma, the process of aligning our different “systems” is not a smooth or even one), and there’s no evident correlation with the moral quality of life a dying person has led. Most of us will likely find ourselves wrestling with death. It’s emblematic of the human condition writ large and individually – one vital (pun intended) nexus of solidarity.

  2. Von Balthasar was very dismissive of the “harrowing of hell” approach to Holy Saturday, focusing instead on Christ’s solidarity with dead (even damned) humanity. I’ve always thought he did not give enough credit to this theme, being too influence by Adrienne von Speyer’s Holy Saturday experiences (which I’ve come to think are theologically problematic). IT is a major theme in the medieval west as well as in the east.

  3. Yes, agreed on all counts, Fritz. And the notion of Christ descending into hell remains in the Apostles’ Creed and in the Catechism too, but in terms of the spirituality of Holy Saturday that marks our contemporary (Western) church life, it is all but absent, I think. It mostly was for me, until last Saturday.

    1. I appreciate the custom of my parish, which is to pray Morning Prayer on the days of the Triduum, and to read the sermon from the Office of Readings. That means that every Holy Saturday, we hear the “Arise, let us go hence reading of Christ speaking to Adam as part of the Harrowing of Hell.

  4. Agree with Karl’s excellent insights. My issue with the other approach is that it is too literal and makes *hell* into a geographic location. Is it really? Focus rather on the journey – and would suggest that the journey of Jesus on Holy Saturday has been emphasized in western theology and church life.
    Part of confronting death is finding *meaning* and many have written about their experiences of *absence*, emptiness, etc.

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