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He Descended into Hell

This is Holy Saturday, day of the hiddenness of God. It is the day of that frightful paradox that we recite in the Creed with the words descended into hell, descended into the mystery of death.On Good Friday we could at least look at the pierced one. But Holy Saturday is empty, the heavy stone of the new tomb covers the deceased, everything is over, faith seems definitely unmasked as wishful thinking. No God has saved this Jesus who called himself Gods son.Holy Saturday, the day of the burial of God -- is that not in an uncanny way our day a day of Gods absence?(Joseph Ratzinger, The Sabbath of History

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Thank you. It's funny, but I think that I can appreciate Joseph Ratzinger's reflections much better now that he is no longer pope.

Mine is never absent. Scripture be damned.

Michael--But yours is risen.

"Rise, let us leave this place.The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity."From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday, Office of Readings.

Bob: I don't have that essay. Is his question rhetorical? Does he share Balthasar's novel interpretation of Holy Saturday?

John,I just came from the celebration of "Tenebrae" where my annual task is to read the "Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday." It is magnificent. Besides the passage you quoted, here is another that always amazes me:"I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated".I do not know what the Greek says for "only one person," but I suspect it depends on Gal 3:28 and Eph 4:13. I do not think we have begun to tap the implications of that vision of communion.

Thank you... wonderful reflections... and I agree with Claire also.

Scripture be damned.What a strange thing to say. I am practically a heathen, and I find it offensive.

Joseph Ratzinger was born, and baptized, on Holy Saturday, and he has said the day -- the twilight, or dawn -- between darkness and light has always had a special resonance for him. Maybe one reason he writes on it so movingly.

Actually I don't think there's anything in scripture that says Jesus went to hell on Saturday (is there?). Instead it seems to say otherwise ... "Today you'll be with me in paradise."

Crystal,perhaps the most explicit is 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6, though exegetes differ as to the proper interpretation of these verses. Joe there is an excellent article in the current issue of "Nova et Vetera" by Edward Oakes on Ratzinger's reflections on "Christ's Descent into Hell" in the course of his writings from "Introduction to Christianity" to "Jesus of Nazareth."I wrote Oakes to raise the issue of how close Ratzinger's thought parallels von Balthasar's on this matter. I opined that von Balthasar seems to accent the complete passivity of Christ in the descent (in a way that contrasts strongly with the "Ancient Homily" quoted above). I find Ratzinger less in line with von Balthasar on that point. Oakes agreed, and I suggested a good follow-up to his article would be one comparing the two approaches.

That time of the year again:

Robert Imbelli,Re: Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday. As you wrote, "It is magnificent." I certainly agree. Thank you for sharing the reading. Those ancient surely knew haw to inspire.

Thanks, Fr. Imbelli.I recall there were some articles at First Things about Hans Urs von Balthasar and what he wrote about Jesus' descent into hell ...Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An ExchangeMore on Balthasar, Hell, and HeresyResponses to Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy

I do not think we have begun to tap the implications of that vision of communion.What kind of things do you have in mind?

If my calendar reading is correct, Saturday night, March 31, 1956, was probably the first twentieth century celebration of the Easter Vigil. For decades, liturgists, including the writers of Orate Fratres, had been urging the transfer from Saturday morning. Joseph Ratzinger was already a priest. He reached Freising by 1958, but I wonder where he was for the renewed Easter Vigil, in which darkness and light have such a role. Pius Parsch had died two years earlier, but I suspect he wrote in support of the change.---In Troy, New York, we realized the change was momentous.

Joe,as we did in the Bronx! Another indication of how much Pius XII helped prepare for Vatican II.

Strange is me. Abe, if nothing else, is a pragmatist. Thanks John and Father I.

Claire,Implications? Consider 1 Cor 12:26. I am stirred by the words; the reality continues to elude.

or you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

I to am struck by the implications of that image. I think that Emily Dickinson, my favourite poet ever, captured this intuitively in her poem, "No Rack Can Torture Me". While there is no indication that Emily Dickinson was particularly devout, nor even Christian, this poem captures a profound intuition of the meaning of Easter and the location of the risen body of Christ as residing now in all of humankind.The early Greeks believed in an immortal soul apart from the body. But, where Dickinson differs, is that she specifically relates that there are "two bodies".No rack can torture me,My soul s at liberty.Behind this mortal boneThere knits a bolder one You cannot prick with saw, Nor rend with scymitar.Two bodies therefore be;Bind one, and one will flee. The eagle of his nestNo easier divest And gain the sky,Than mayest thou, Except thyself may beThine enemy;Captivity is consciousness, Sos liberty.

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