Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

Fra Angelico: Christ in Limbo, c. 1441-1442
Fra Angelico: Christ in Limbo

Holy Saturday: we are used to this being a time of silence and stillness, when earth awaits the resurrection and we do nothing because God is doing everything. We are used to its being a day without the sacraments, but this year we plumb the depths of emptiness and loss more deeply than ever. Even our churches are closed. There is no busy preparation of altar and font, no careful placing of flowers and candles, no last-minute rehearsal of music and ceremonies. We have only the weariness of death, the coldness of the tomb, and the long, dry psalms of the Divine Office, chanted recto tono, to sustain us. Tonight, when we might have expected a blaze of glory from the kindling of the new fire and the glad tones of the Exsultet, there will be only darkness, emptiness, silence. But if we think nothing is happening, if we think that God has somehow abandoned his people, that Easter is cancelled, so to say, we are very much mistaken. 

Holy Saturday is the time when Christ descends into the underworld to preach salvation to those who died before his coming. He goes to seek and save the lost. Today is a day of mercy, a mercy beyond compare. Traditionally, artists have portrayed Christ leading Adam and Eve out of Sheol, followed by a whole band of prophets and patriarchs and a nameless throng of people now rising to new life. On such a day as this, I like to think of Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as to a friend, of the unknown persons who form a distant part of my own family, of all the generations that existed before Christ, whom he desires to be with him in his glory. This is the day when captives are freed, when new life and hope spring up in the darkness, when the resurrection begins with the harrowing of hell.

It may be fanciful and probably bad theology to say that tonight, when we gather in choir to pray the Great Vigil, the church across the way and all churches throughout the world will not really be empty. They will be filled with the spirits of the just, risen to newness of life and singing the praises of God. And it will be because Christ has experienced death for all mankind and thus brought to completion his work of redemption. Even now, he is acting, awakening the dead, bringing joy and gladness. An ancient writer expressed this better than I ever could. Christ says to those who sleep in death, as one day we trust he will say to us also: ‘Rise! I am the life of the dead.’

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

Audio Version

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4 thoughts on “Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell”

  1. Thank you e sister, I have never been busier in the last 2 weeks of the lockdown, here in New Zealand! I’m a nurse and are concidered an essential worker. My days are spent attending the sick in their homes! What a privilege, to be of service this way!, And personally I have never felt shall a sence of peace and Freedom in my life before! God is good and to be able to give some of his goodness to others in these time, brings tears to my eyes! Holy week blessings to you, In grace Ruth

  2. Thank you, Sister, thank you so much.
    My father always approached Holy Saturday as way more than the lazy, if anxious or unsettling, day between Good Friday and Easter, and you’ve brought that into beautiful focus. Thank you.

  3. A day full of deep emotion and wonderment. Yes, the world is silent … but we can hear those angel voices. Be still, and know that I am God. Thank you dear Sister.

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