Holy Saturday is probably for most Western Christians the most insignificant part of the end of Holy Week. Most churches let it pass without much of a thought. The irony is that this day in between Good Friday and Easter is the day that seems to correspond closest to the everyday experience of the Christian life, which is lived in between the two comings of Christ. To walk by faith and not by sight eagerly awaiting our adoption and “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23) is to live between death and resurrection.
I’m told that some Eastern Orthodox Christians spit on the floor and stomp on it during their Holy Saturday observances. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. We often practice what we think should be preached. This curious liturgical practice makes sense if you hold to the traditional majority understanding of Holy Saturday. Here “he descended into hell” is actually understood in some sense to be a glorious ascent, as the newly enthroned Crucified King displays his regality by showing that he indeed is the one who holds “the keys of Death and Hades”. He preaches good news not to all the dead, but to the righteous dead, vindicating God’s promises to the Old Covenant faithful in the first inaugural act of his unfolding Easter reign.
This understanding of Holy Saturday corresponds to a view of Christ’s work on the cross as saving sinners from the death that comes from sin (Gen 2:17) rather than fulfilling divine justice by being the Judge judged in our place. Here he saves by embracing the broken mortality of a broken humanity and overcoming it. He becomes what we are by grace so that we could become what he is by nature: the immortal beloved child of God.
The second view is one held by John Calvin and most subsequent Protestants, including Karl Barth. Calvin affirmed that Christ “descended into hell” but thought that a literal visit to the realm of the dead was childish mythology without real biblical foundations. How could Christ preach to the righteous dead in his descent? There are no righteous dead because all the dead Jew and Gentile alike are under the power of sin. (Rom 3:19-20) A passage like 1 Peter 3:19 can’t be taken literally according to Calvin. The proclamation to the spirits in prison is a symbolic one, indicating that the effects of Christ’s death penetrated even to the realm of the dead, emphasizing what was already true: God’s elect came to know that the grace which they only experienced in hope was manifest in the world, and the wicked came to know all the more clearly the nature of their lostness. The descent into hell means that Christ didn’t just die a physical death on the cross, but a spiritual one. He became sin for us and suffered the experience of death in God abandonment. The descent really happens when Christ bears the full weight of human sin at Calvary. Unlike the first view however, this understanding of the descent sees Christ’s victory not as the overcoming of death, but as taking place through his death.
Neither of these understandings of “Christ’s descent into hell” makes much space for a unique understanding of Holy Saturday. The former view tends to collapse Holy Saturday into Easter proleptically, while the latter one tends to push it back to Good Friday retroactively. There is a third understanding that attempts something different. It’s a more recent approach taken by the great modern Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Von Balthasar affirms with the tradition a literal descent into hell on the day between his death and resurrection. However he doesn’t think it’s a victorious descent. With the tradition he assumes that the unassumed is the unhealed. With Calvin and Barth he affirms that Christ’s vicarious sacrifice must include not just the physical consequences of sin but the spiritual ones as well. He sees this as not just happening on the cross, but including a real suffering in perdition. In his descent Christ experiences the Godlessness of hell for us and our salvation. “And so it is really God who assumes what is radically contrary to the divine, what is eternally reprobated by God, in the form of supreme obedience of the Son towards the Father.” Holy Saturday involves a second death for Christ. On the cross Christ actively assumes the burden of human sin and God’s judgment on it. In hell, Christ passively embraces the same things, in solidarity with the dead’s passivity through accepting and sharing the absolute rejection of God.
For von Balthasar hell is a Christological reality. We can only be certain that its population numbers one. On Holy Saturday we commemorate the Sheol of the Old Testament becoming the hell of the New one. Hell is a product of the redemptive work of Christ, “a product which henceforth must be ‘contemplated’ in its own ‘for itself’ by the Redeemer, so as to become, in its state of sheer reprobation that which exists ‘for him’: that over which, in his Resurrection, he receives the power and the keys.” Christ has power over death and hell because he suffered their fullness, and yet prevailed. As a result he defines hell, and in his risenness is Lord over it as well.
One often hears the phrase “that’s a God forsaken place”, usually indicating a place bereft of hope where no one would reside by choice. But if von Balthasar is right, there are no God forsaken places. And there are no God forsaken people, or stories, or selves. Hell is not a God forsaken place, but a place created by the mission of divine love.
I don’t know what kind of liturgical practice would befit von Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday. Certainly not stomping on the floor and spitting at the minions of Satan. Perhaps none at all. Maybe the human response to the day between Christ’s death and Resurrection is something like active passivity or passive activity, or maybe just gratitude, or a combination of the three.
In his book Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, written as he was dying of cancer, Alan Lewis writes:
The resurrection is the decisive factor here, of course. It is not hard to be puzzled or skeptical about the factuality and meaning of the empty tomb and the Easter appearances. But provided only that one has heard and been open to the story that Christ was raised from the dead, it is supremely difficult – though actually supremely important – still to think of his death in its own right, without or before his resurrection. For that is the only way truly to hear and tell the story of both his dying and his raising in faithfulness to its own structure and plot.
As the events of that climactic weekend occurred, and as the gospel story recounts them, this did not begin as a three-day happening, destined to end as a story of victory and life. Far from being the first day, the day of the cross is, in the logic of the narrative itself, actually the last day, the end of the story of Jesus. And the day that follows it is not an in-between day which simply waits for the morrow, but it is an empty void, a nothing, shapeless, meaningless, and anti-climactic; simply the day after the end. There is no remarkable tomorrow on the horizon to give the Sabbath special identity and form as the day before the Day of Resurrection. These were anonymous, indefinite hours, filled with memories and assessments of what was finished and past; and there was no reason to imagine that an imminent triumph might render those judgments premature and incomplete.
When today we ourselves fail to identify with the story of this Shabbat, refuse to ponder the death of Christ as seen from this vantage point where death is his only fate, and defeat the only verdict on his life, then do not faith and theology cease actually to hear the very narrative by which the church lives?
Holy Saturday this year takes me back to words recently written by Andrew Sullivan:
I’ve managed to see Scorsese’s Silence twice in the last couple of weeks. It literally silenced me. It’s a surpassingly beautiful movie — but its genius lies in the complexity of its understanding of what faith really is. For some secular liberals, faith is some kind of easy, simple abdication of reason — a liberation from reality. For Scorsese, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and often inseparable from crippling, perpetual doubt. You see this in the main protagonist’s evolution: from a certain, absolutist arrogance to a long sacrifice of pride toward a deeper spiritual truth. Faith is a result, in the end, of living, of seeing your previous certainties crumble and be rebuilt, shakily, on new grounds. God is almost always silent, hidden, and sometimes most painfully so in the face of hideous injustice or suffering.
A life of faith is therefore not real unless it is riddled with despair…There are moments — surpassingly rare but often indelible — when you do hear the voice of God and see the face of Jesus. You never forget them — and I count those few moments in my life when I have heard the voice and seen the face as mere intimations of what is to come. But the rest is indeed silence. And the conscience is something that cannot sometimes hear itself. I’ve rarely seen the depth of this truth more beautifully unpacked. Which is why, perhaps, the movie has had such a tiny audience so far. Those without faith have no patience for a long meditation on it; those with faith in our time are filled too often with a passionate certainty to appreciate it. And this movie’s mysterious imagery can confound anyone. But its very complexity and subtlety gave me hope in this vulgar, extremist time. We cannot avoid this surreality all around us. But it may be possible occasionally to transcend it.
In things big and small in scale, life between death and resurrection often feels like a living hell, even and perhaps especially for people of faith. When bombs are dropping on enemies and war seems like the new normal, when children are being gassed, when estrangement from family or friends makes loneliness take on a sense of lingering permanence, when the guilt and shame of things done and left undone becomes crushing, the arguments for hell’s existence seem more sensible than the ones for God’s. Life can be a living hell sometimes, which is why the life of Jesus had to be too. At least on a Saturday, where during his agonizing experience of perdition, in the world there was only…silence.
[This piece was inspired by a podcast I did yesterday with Bill Borror. The link below is where you can listen]