On this solemn day, on this Holy Saturday, when we contemplate the lifeless body of Christ enclosed in the tomb, we recall how Jesus literally went to the “outskirts” of existence by His death on the Cross and His descent into Hell.
Scripture calls the abode of the dead Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek), because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. In his First Letter, St. Peter tells us, “Put to death in the flesh, Jesus was brought to life in the spirit. In it, He also went to preach to the spirits in prison…” (Peter 3:19). In other words, the holy souls who lived and died before Christ’s redemptive act was accomplished were finally delivered from their captivity when Christ opened the gates of heaven to them by His sacrificial death on the Cross and His descent into Hell.
In the ancient Holy Saturday homily which I will read shortly, this moment of deliverance is wondrously described: “What is happening? Today there is great silence over the earth, 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 prisoners Adam and Eve from their pains, He Who is God, and Adam’s son.”
By His saving death and His descent into Hell, Jesus has brought the Gospel and the Cross to the furthermost reaches of existence itself. May His example embolden us all to do the same. May we become joyful messengers of Christ’s victory over sin and death to everyone we meet, even to those who live on the edges and in the darkest places of our communities and world.
Something strange is happening today. There is a great silence on the earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The King fell asleep when His soul was separated from His Body on Good Friday afternoon. He remained asleep until His soul reanimated His Body on Easter morning. But during the silence and stillness of the King’s sleep, He harrowed Hell and destroyed forever the power of death over the righteous.
Our Lord’s descent into hell is well attested to by divine revelation. For example, Christ says, “…as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40). Further, in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter says, “David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).
Christ descended into Hell so as to manifest His power and authority to the underworld. As St. Paul writes, “At Jesus’s name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord!” (Philippians 2:10-11) But secondly, and more importantly, Our Lord descended into Hell to deliver His loved ones from their exile. He came to reward those who, from our first father Adam, to His own foster-father, St. Joseph, had fought the good fight and had finished the race. The King descended into Hell in order to bring nothing less than His own beatific vision, the very paradise which He promised to Dismas just a few hours before (Luke 23:43), to these just and holy souls.
At this time, as is custom in our tradition, I would like to read to you the Ancient Homily on Christ’s Descent into Hell. I ask you to ponder it quietly and reflectively as you gaze upon the tomb here before you.