On this day a man or woman of prayer enters the Holy of Holies through the torn veil of the temple - only to meet God's Silence. Like the top of the intake of breath before exhaling, the day hangs in stillness between moments - as between one phase of life and the next. This is God's Great Sabbath. Of grief? Of rest? Of detachment? Of deep apatheia?
In contrast to the day's contemplative silence, Christian imagination represents the Harrowing of Hell in energetic art. Jesus yanks Adam and Eve by the wrists with superhuman power (Chora Museum, Turkey). Medieval art often shows the gates of hell as monster's jaws. Another typical image for this day includes the strewing of broken locks, bolts, keys, chains, and fetters on the floor of hell. Sometimes Dismas, the “good” thief accompanies Jesus on this adventure of liberation.
It makes a difference to the human story that Jesus' first act after death is to liberate hell. Jesus will not go to Paradise without the rest of humanity. Neither will he give himself to Paradise until he has shown the way to his still living friends, urging them to make known the good news of love to all. And so he will wait at the tomb ...
Meditation One (introit) oddly decorated room
“They've closed the chapel at Brideshead, Bridey and the Bishop; Mummy's requiem was the last mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in - I was there alone. I don't think he saw me - and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly there wasn't any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can't tell you what it felt like.”
-Evelyn Waugh 1903-1966 Brideshead Revisited (Cordelia speaking to Charles)
The Harrowing of Hell, English, c. 1240, British Library
Today a tomb holds him who holds the creation in the hollow of his hand; a stone covers him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to thy dispensation, whereby thou has accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath, thy most holy Resurrection from the dead.
What is this sight that we behold? What is this present rest? The King of the ages, having through his passion fulfilled the plan of salvation, keeps Sabbath in the tomb, granting us a new Sabbath. Unto him let us cry aloud: Arise, O Lord, judge thou the earth, for measureless is thy great mercy and thou dost reign for ever.
Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as he sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to him: Thou hast slept as a lion; who shall awaken thee, O King? But of thine own free will do thou rise up, who willingly dost give thyself for us. O Lord, glory to thee.
Matins, Holy Saturday, Orthodox quoted from The Oxford Book of Prayer ed. George Appleton
Descent into Hell, Russian, 1495-1504, Moscow School, Ferapontov Monastery
Jesus liberates Adam and Eve, The Harrowing of Hell, Chora Museum, Turkey
Meditation Two (insight) to bring us to this Great Nothing
What does the powerful Nothingness mean? For it is meaningful, exceedingly meaningful. It is not just a matter of “waiting.” This is a high symbol, indeed the symbol to which everything else has led. All the exercises of Lent, all the concentration of Holy Week, all the final abandonments of Good Friday are intended to bring us to this Great Nothing. It is our way of pointing to that which cannot be said; this is why the Word is gone. There is no object outside us on which we may fasten. Nothing to observe, nothing happening, nothing to do. Our usual, finite, comparative, means-to-end activity is suspended. We are in the presence of the Infinite; we are in fact in the Infinite.
- Beatrice Bruteau The Easter Mysteries
Meditation Three (integration) first act of liberation (between death and resurrection)
God goes to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he goes to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” Then Christ takes him by the hand and raises him up, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
“Ancient Homily” quoted from Triduum, LTP publications, vol. 1
The Last Word
The most beautiful words, those that give the most genuine help, are often born in a silence filled with suffering. Silence is the glowing furnace of the word, the forge of true speech and sensitivity.
If, then, we consider the descent into hell from the hypothesis of a final decision, we see that at Christ's death the whole world entered upon a cosmic spring the harvest of which will be the remaking of our universe in newness and splendor at the end of time. At the moment of Christ's death the veil in the temple was rent in two from top to bottom, the veil, that is, that hung before the Holy of Holies. For Jewish mysticism and subsequently in the Christian interpretation of this mysterious happening, the veil of the temple represented the whole universe as it stands between God and man. This veil was torn in two at Christ's death to show us that, at the moment when Christ's act of redemption is consummated, the whole cosmos open itself to the Godhead, bursts open for God like a flower-bud. In his triumphant descent into the innermost fastnesses of the world the Son of God tore open the whole world and made it transparent to God's light; nay, he made it a vehicle of sanctification. (….) The universe is no longer what it was before. The transformation of the world is even now a reality.
Ladislaus Boros S.J. 1927-1981 The Mystery of Death
Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
Down through the tomb's inward arch He has shouldered out into Limbo to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber: the merciful dead, the prophets, the innocents just His own age and those unnumbered others waiting here unaware, in an endless void He is ending now, stooping to tug at their hands, to pull them from their sarcophagi, dazzled, almost unwilling. Dismas, neighbor in death, Golgotha dust still streaked on the dried sweat of his body no one had washed and anointed, is here, for sequence is not known in Limbo; the promise, given from cross to cross at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn. All these He will swiftly lead to the Paradise road: they are safe. That done, there must take place that struggle no human presumes to picture: living, dying, descending to rescue the just from shadow, were lesser travails than this: to break through earth and stone of the faithless world back to the cold sepulcher, tear stained stifling shroud; to break from them back into breath and heartbeat, and walk the world again, closed into days and weeks again, wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit streaming through every cell of flesh so that if mortal sight could bear to perceive it, it would be seen His mortal flesh was lit from within, now, and aching for home. He must return, first, in Divine patience, and know hunger again, and give to humble friends the joy of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb.
--Denise Levertov 1923-1997
HOLY SATURDAY VIGIL: A VILLANELLE
Elizabeth T. Massey
I wonder where God wandered on that day When Christ was shriving hell for sinners’ souls Though it was early spring when all is gay.
Behold Christ, steeped in utter darkness where the fey Spirits dwell the better blackest depths to troll, Doubting a moment where God was hiding on that day.
Was the Creator walking lonely where the ocean’s spray Whipped this ancient face with froth, taking its toll Despite the early spring when all is gay?
Did the Creator, Father, Mother, with us pray That Christ, descended from Calvary’s star-crossed knoll, Would stride in faith, his parents’ strength in him that day?
Did God suffer too while the Son worked to sway The damned to repent, emerging from Satan’s Sheol To rejoice in early spring when all is gay?
When next dawn the Paschal Moon displayed its Easter rays Our Lord arose blessed, entire, whole Radiant Trinity with Spirit, God that day New life for humankind in spring when all is gay.