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


Holy Saturday 2019

The Harrowing of Hell: Jesus tenderly leads by the hand those who are in Sheol
The Harrowing of Hell: Christ leads a soul from Sheol

Once again we have reached Holy Saturday, that day out of time, when in silence and stillness earth awaits the Resurrection. Our churches are empty of colur and warmth; no sacraments are celebrated; we know only the bleakness of the tomb and what it is to be without Christ. But God is working powerfully. The ancient tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ went down among the dead and preached to those who had had no opportunity of hearing the gospel while alive, reminds us that this is a day of mercy, a day when we do nothing because God does everything.

Monastic life is always lived in what I call ‘Holy Saturday mode’ — that is to say, by the mercy of God, suspended between heaven and hell, his grace leading us ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery. We do not see the way ahead clearly; we trust to his guidance. But we know that tonight, with the kindling of the new fire, his glory will blaze across heaven and earth; death will be destroyed for ever; and Christ will be revealed as our Saviour and Redeemer.


Holy Saturday 2017

Once again we have reached Holy Saturday, a day of great silence and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. Our churches are empty of colour and warmth, there are no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, and we experience to the full what life without Christ is like. For a monk or nun, indeed for most of us, I suspect, life is largely lived in ‘Holy Saturday mode’ as we go on, as best we can, waiting, waiting, waiting for God to act. Today, when the threat of war hangs heavy over the world, the illusion of control with which we try to comfort ourselves at other times is revealed for what it is: sheer illusion. Most of the big things that affect our lives are entirely beyond our control, but we ignore that. We like to think that we are in charge — only we aren’t, really. Does that mean we are mere puppets, eking out our existence in bitterness of soul, without hope? Surely not. God created us in his own image and likeness, and there is in each of us something that reflects, uniquely and beautifully, our Creator. We are called to co-operate with him, to allow grace to transform us, but we waste so much time trying to resist, to do things our own way. It takes Holy Saturday to jerk us back into reality.

The ancient tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to release those who had died before his coming is a wonderful reminder of the infinite mercy and tenderness of God. When we cannot act, he does — with limitless power. Today is a day when we are invited to think about this unseen activity of God and the restoration to humankind of its original dignity and freedom in Christ. We do not know what the future holds, either for us as individuals or as a world, but of this we can be sure. In the bleakness of Holy Saturday, as night pases into dawn, something extraordinary will happen. We shall be one with the events of two thousand years ago. Christ will rise, never to die again; and we shall rise with him. All the sin and shame with which we have marred his features in us will be wiped away. We shall sing of the ‘happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam’ which gave us such and so great a Redeemer, and all creation will respond with its own great ‘alleluia’. This is our Easter faith, and already it casts its light upon the world.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Holy Saturday 2016

Holy Saturday: the day out of time when, in silence and stillness, earth awaits the Resurrection; the day without sacraments, when our churches are cold and bleak and we know what it is to be without Christ in our lives; the day when we do nothing because God does all. And then comes the night, brilliant with light and warmth, when Christ breaks the bonds of death, and everything is changed for ever.

Here are two posts from former years which say something about Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell:

Holy Saturday 2015

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of HellFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Holy Saturday 2015

Holy Saturday is a day out of time, a day for doing nothing, because God is acting — powerfully, incomprehensibly, mercifully — while the earth remains silent and still, awaiting the Resurrection. In the past, I’ve said that the whole of monastic life is lived in Holy Saturday mode (see here or here) and I was thinking principally about the fact that we are suspended between heaven and hell, going on as best we can, placing all our hope in the God we cannot see; but I begin to think that the connection is both simpler and more mysterious. Holy Saturday is traditionally associated with the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to free the spirits of the just who had died before his coming. It is a day of mercy, and all of us live by the mercy of God. That is what we really mean by Holy Saturday as a day of waiting, a day when we await the mercy of God.

Initial D: The Harrowing of Hell


















The tenderness of this illustration, as Christ takes the spirits in Sheol by the hand and leads them out into the light, would melt the heart of anyone. It makes me wonder why we are sometimes so anxious to consign others to hell. Don’t we all long for God to be merciful to us? Haven’t we enough sins of our own to worry about, without condemning those of others? Perhaps, today, we could spend a moment or two thinking about how we judge others, and the harm we sometimes do by imprisoning them in our judgement of them.

Tonight, during the Exsultet, we’ll sing of the felix culpa, the happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam, which brought us such and so great a Redeemer. It is theology trembling on the brink of heresy, breath-taking in its conception of God’s wisdom and mercy. Holy Saturday reminds us that sin and death are no barrier to God. He will lead us into everlasting light, if we will but let him.

Note on the illustration
: Initial D: The Harrowing of Hell, mid-1200s, Tempera colours, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.5 x 16.5 cm (9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in.)
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 14, fol. 110 Used by permission under the Open Content Scheme, with thanks.

Holy Saturday: a Day out of Time

An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.

Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.

Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail