“He descended into Hell” is probably one of the more powerful parts of the Apostles Creed. And yet the Church has allotted this odd phrase to one of the holiest days of the liturgical year, Holy Saturday (CCC 631-637). On Good Friday we gaze upon the broken body of Christ crucified, but Holy Saturday is the day where God seems absent— He is asleep in the tomb and to the world it seemed He would never rise to preach, heal, correct, bless, perform miracles, or teach again. To Christ’s disciples, the darkness cast over the earth at their Master’s execution continued to overshadow their lives in a gloomy pall as they now hid in fear of the Jews in the Upper Room where they had shared the Last Supper. Now that Jesus had died, they reasoned, it would only be a matter of time until the world forgot about Him. The question remained to be answered: “Now what?”
Growing up, I echoed this puzzlement every Holy Saturday as I sat at home during the Easter Break. Good Friday had always been an emotionally draining day (and when it was time to fast, a physically rough time as well), and the time spent in between Friday and Sunday was meant to reflect on our Lord’s Passion, if not to nap sometime prior to the six-hour Easter vigil that needed to be prepared for. More often than not, the house remained quiet, and the fact that there was no daily Mass being celebrated anywhere on the planet that day gave a particular feeling of emptiness similar to what the disciples must have experienced. Still, there was something strangely refreshing about the stillness, if not a result of disconnecting from all technology, entertainment, socialization, and the stresses of daily life. That emptiness could and would only be filled with the singing of the Exsultet, the first “Alleluia” uttered on Easter morning, and the knowledge that Christ had forever conquered death.
Between the sadness of the Cross and the joy of Easter, from the bewilderment of the disciples to Mary’s great faith, we now draw courage from the latter’s example to face the future with faithful hope, patience, love, and interior calm. Whereas it was under the cover of darkness that the disciples abandoned the Lord that fateful night in the garden, it is also in darkness that the Church gathers in vigilant expectation to celebrate His triumphant rising from the dead. We are also reminded of those who have been in darkness since the Fall awaiting the opening of Heaven. It wasn’t until Christ descended into the darkness inhabited by those cut off from God that they were restored to their eternal inheritance. We now take part in their rejoicing and endeavor to form our lives to make ourselves worthy to share eternal life.
On Holy Saturday we must not become lost in the preparations for Easter and forget to reflect on the day’s significance. It is necessary that we take the proper time to grieve, reflect on, and contemplate the thoughts and emotions of Mary and the disciples as they pondered the sudden death of the Lord. While we rest in the hope of the Easter Resurrection, let us not neglect to ponder the pain and anguish of those who were standing at the foot of the Cross or hiding in the Upper Room. After all, the descent into Hell precedes the rising from the dead (CCC 638).
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.