Today is the great day of mourning. There is a sense of loss and emptiness like no other time. But in Christ’s death there is also an anticipation of something great. At the moment of his death Jesus stated, “It is finished,” “It is accomplished,” “or it is consummated,” depending on the translation. What was finished, what was accomplished, what was consummated? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that “Christ’s death is the unique and definitive sacrifice.”
Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (CCC 613)
Jesus is laid in the tomb, but how can a tomb contain He who created all things. Jesus broke the bonds of death by his death; “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” (Heb 2:9)
It is on this day that Christ entered hell to free all those who had gone before Him in righteousness. First let us consider the word hell. the hell referred to here is not the hell of the damned but refers to the abode of the dead. Death was not part of the original plan but was only introduced into the world after that first sin and we were deprived of the vision of God. In the Greek this abode of the dead is translated as Hades and in the Hebrew it is Sheol. This is where all the dead whether evil or righteous waited for the redeemer.
“For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6)
The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. (CCC 634)
It is in Christ’s death on the cross that our salvation was realized. On this day all the righteous were released from hell and the gates of heaven were opened. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 635 that, “Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life,” by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades,” so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
The Church both east and west takes from its ancient tradition and reads St. John Chrysostem’s Paschal Homily (east) and an Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday, author unknown (west). Here is an excerpt from the Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday:
The Lord’s descent into hell
“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
But wait, His death is not the end of the story. That would not be the appropriate ending for the Greatest Story Ever Told. I know that many like to shy away from the thought of our Lord’s passion and death. But we must remember that without His humiliation and death we do not have the Glory found on Easter morning.
Please do not let this day pass without reflecting on Jesus’s time in the tomb and among those in hell. When we take time to reflect on this day it brings us a greater appreciation for the next chapter in the story, the Glory of Easter.
I close with this prayer from the Vatican Website:
Almighty, ever-living God, whose Only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with Him in baptism, may, by His resurrection, obtain eternal life. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ.