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The Christic Imagination – IV

There is the cryptic article of the Apostles Creed: "He descended into hell."

There are the enigmatic and controverted verses of Scripture: "For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water" (1 Peter 3:18–20).

Little more.

Over the centuries Holy Saturday had contracted liturgically, leaving little breathing space between the desolation of Good Friday and the exuberant joy of Easter. Within living memory of some (many?) who read this blog, the Easter Vigil was celebrated Holy Saturday morning, with the risen Lord proclaimed amid song and tears of joy at noon of Saturday.

Pius XII's restoration of the full scope of the Triduum happily returned Holy Saturday to its proper place and proportion. But what is that place?

One suggestion is that it is a time of contemplative wonder mixed with dread. Perhaps what I am gesturing towards finds expression in that magnificent ancient homily, read at this day's Office of Readings/Tenebrae Service:

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps 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. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

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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Here is a contemporary restatement of "the Harrowing of Hell," from Enzo Bianchi in today's Avvenire (Italian original here:,it/ ):

Holy Saturday, the day after the death, the time when for the disciples there was only the end of hope, an aporia, a void over which non-sense hovered, the unbearable pain of a mortal blow: Where is God? The mute question of Holy Saturday. A whole day passes, and God has done nothing... And yet God has not abandoned Jesus. Though abandonment seems to be the bitter truth for the disciples, God in fact has already called Jesus to himself, has even already raised in him in his holy Spirit and the living Jesus is in hell in order to proclaim liberation even there. An empty day, Holy Saturday, silent for the disciples and for others, but the day on which the Father through his Son brings salvation to hell: “Today,” says a homily attributed to Epiphanies, “there is a great silence on the earth. The Lord is dead in the flesh and has descended in order to shake the kingdom of hell. He goes to seek Adam, the first father, like a lost sheep. The Lord descends and visits those who lay in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The descent into hell becomes the extension of salvation to the whole cosmos and to the human race in its entirety. Who is in hell after this “visit” of the glorious Christ? Cyril of Alexandria states that this preaching of Christ to hell meant the pillaging of hell: “Christ, pillaging the whole of hell and throwing open its impenetrable doors to the spirits of the dead, leaves the devil alone there.” “Where, o hell, is your victory?” sings the paschal liturgy.

Christians today should not forget this mystery of the great and holy Saturday, a prelude to Easter but also a reading of Christ’s descent into the heart of the earth and of creation, into the depth of any existence far from God, in the hellish regions that still inhabit every Christian, despite his desire to follow Christ. Who doesn’t recognize the presence of these hells? Un-evangelized regions of our existence, territories of unbelief, places from which God seems absent and into which every one of us can do nothing but pray Christ to descend and evangelize them, illumine them, transform these spaces of death subject to the power of the devil into fertile land capable of generating life by the power of grace. Thus Holy Saturday is not an empty day; it is like the time of pregnancy, the growth of time towards birth-giving, the triumph of new life. Its silence is not dumbness. It is a concentration charged with energy and life.

Please delete the above, and I'll try again.

Father Imbelli has provided a link to "an ancient homily on Holy Saturday." But perhaps the following passage also bears repeating:

"I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. 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."

The Liturgy of the Hours, Holy Saturday, Office of Readings 



I know this is the tradition, and von Balthasar wrote about it too, but it is strange that the Creed says that Jesus was in hell on Saturday because there's no scriptural basis really for that belief, plus it's contadicted by Jesus' words to the thief: "today you'll be with me in paradise".   A link - "Did Jesus Spend Saturday in Hell?" ...

I was also struck by the language in the homily that John Page quoted, especially the last sentence when Christ tells Adam: “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." A very powerful message of love and hope.

In addition, I thought yesterday’s homily about Judas by the preacher of the papal household during the Good Friday service at the Vatican was, ironically, also an important message about love and hope. The full text is here:


"for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person"

Why do some Christians find it necessary to exaggerate so?

This phrase in the Apostles' Creed causes confusion and distress to some of the faithful, and is a mistranslation as well. 

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