“What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
It’s Holy Saturday. The Church is silent as we remember the Lord in the tomb. Death, darkness, and silence characterize this day. And it’s symbolic of the occasional state of our spirits throughout the year. Sometimes our souls are “in terror” and are still because God seems to be sleeping. But a person in such a state has only to wait for the Lord to free us from the darkness.
Many people aren’t aware of why the Church teaches that Jesus “descended into hell” after his death. The simple answer is that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead (or Hell) to free the righteous souls waiting for the Redeemer to reopen the gates of Heaven through his passion and death. Before the cross, no one could enter Heaven, no matter how holy they were.
Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church, teaches in paragraphs 633-634:
(p.633) Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into Hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the Hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. (p.634) The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into Hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.
What might we, who are still living, learn from that example?
Sometimes spiritual struggles and obstacles and the ordinary stresses and anxieties of daily life leave our spirit feeling like it’s in the dark of a tomb or in a state of arrest, as though in the “realm of the dead.” We feel darkened, weighed down, and unable to rise up. We become like captives in a prison, just like the righteous souls in Hell who were waiting for their redemption. It’s in those moments when we should remember that the Lord has set those captives free; he has set free the captives of sin and death (you, me, all man). He will set you free from the captivity of your “prison,” too. Jesus is the master of mounting rescue missions!
As Jesus “went down into the depths of death so that ‘the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’,” He will rescue you from whatever your darkness is. He may not make it all go away, but raise you above it all. He may not dispel your darkness, but give you a very bright candle to push the darkness away. He may not destroy your prison, but he may give you the key to the cell door. He may not even give you that key but may reveal, to your surprise, that you already have the key in your possession, and all you need to do is unlock the cell door and walk out.
The Lord did not leave souls in the darkness of sin and death. He did not leave the souls of the righteous in the captivity of Hell. And he will not leave your spirit in the darkness of an interior tomb; in captivity of an interior realm of the dead. Holy Saturday is a period of silence and stillness. And in that silence and stillness, we wait for the Lord’s resurrection; for life rise up from death. When you find yourself in spiritual darkness, be still. Wait for the Lord to rescue you. “Be still and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 37:7).