The liturgical period between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a week full of activity. It is the apex of the Second Vatican Council’s expression “active participation,” in which the faithful are surrounded by, and immersed in, a plethora of devotional expression and ceremonial symbolism. As should always be the case – but especially in the midst of the Holy Week liturgies – Catholics must remain both prayerful and alert. Every reading, every pious word, chant, gesture, and period of silence must have our fullest attention, because there is much to learn and even endure as we follow Christ through the agonizing last week of His earthly life. We must all experience Our Lord’s Passion as if we were present at it two thousand years ago. For in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are all standing on the Hill of Calvary and shuddering at the brutal torture and execution of a just man, the very God-Man who came to His own, though His own received Him not.
The meaning found in the Holy Week liturgies extends even to the silence that follows them. The solemn Eucharistic procession that concludes the Holy Thursday liturgy commemorates Christ’s departure from the Upper Room, His entrance into the Garden of Gethsemane, the agony He endured there, and the diabolical kiss of Judas that preceded His imprisonment. The Church recommends that we devote a period of time in the church to reflecting on these events, supplemented by the reading of the thirteenth through seventeenth chapters of the Gospel of Saint John. Though the Holy Thursday service may have been concluded, our devotion must not end.
The silent recession that concludes the Good Friday liturgy is similar and provides a unique period of prayer and reflection that extends throughout the night and into Holy Saturday. However, as we all know, Holy Saturday tends to be a day of nearly frantic preparation for the Easter Vigil and the many festivities of Easter Sunday – both sacred and secular. As a result, an important body of doctrinal truths is overlooked, year after year.
After the lifeless body of Christ was placed in the tomb, it is generally presumed that a morbid hush came over the world, a period of supernatural inactivity. Hence, Holy Saturday takes on a similar character of religious quietude, leaving us to go about our preparations without the pious intensity of the previous week. But preparations aside, the Church herself is silent and still. In fact – except for the Good Friday service – Holy Saturday is the only day in the liturgical year in which no Mass is offered and no biblical readings are assigned.
In some parishes – usually ethnic communities where tradition is stronger than in ordinary parishes – a small informal service may be held before an image of Christ entombed, with prayers and meditations that again reflect the alleged supernatural stillness of the day. It is as if Our Lord was literally asleep until His Resurrection – resting up in preparation for His spectacular Lord’s Day appearance to His disciples.
While pondering the lifeless Corpse in the tomb, it may seem from our perspective as if Holy Saturday was a day of divine inactivity, but it certainly was not the case from the perspective of the One who was crucified. For Jesus Christ, there was no Sabbath rest that year. Holy Saturday was a busy day, indeed.
From the moment of His death upon the Cross at 3 p.m. on Good Friday until the moment of His Resurrection early on Easter Sunday, the divine Savior in His human soul ministered to the righteous departed souls in Limbo. From the Cross, Jesus “descended” to this realm of the dead. This truth is not an obscure theory found only in apocryphal writings or specious private revelations; it is a doctrine of the faith which we regularly profess. In the Apostles’ Creed we say,
“[Jesus Christ]…suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended into hell.”
Christ’s Descension into “hell” is not to be taken in the literal sense. In this case, the term refers to the realms of the dead in general. Christ did not visit the damned as a means of tormenting those who would never benefit from His redemption. Nor did He visit heaven; He would finally do that at His Ascension. Instead, Christ descended to the realm of the just where all the righteous persons who had died previous to His atoning death awaited their liberation. This means that no one – not even the greatest individuals from the Old Testament era – could enter heaven until the price for all human sin had been paid. If such persons could have entered heaven at the time of their death, then there would have been no need for Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.
The paradise in which these souls temporarily resided is called the “Limbo of the Fathers” and “Abraham’s Bosom.” It was a place of peace, but it lacked the presence of God, which is the primary joy of heaven.
Death is, by definition, the separation of the human soul from the human body. It was the same for Christ, but with a qualifier. Following His dying words upon the Cross – “It is finished” – His soul descended to the realm of the dead while His lifeless body remained in the tomb. However, His divine Person – the Word of God – remained united with both. This means His soul remained the soul of the Son of God, and His corpse remained the body of the Son of God.
The Roman Catechism says,
“Although His soul was separated from His body, His divinity was never parted from either His soul or His body.”
And the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
“During Christ’s period in the tomb, his divine person continued to assume both his soul and his body, although they were separated from each other by death. For this reason, the dead Christ’s body ‘saw no corruption (Acts 13:37)’” (#630).
Therefore, to contemplate Christ in the tomb – perhaps even with an image before us – is to contemplate, not merely an instrument once used by God but then discarded in death, but the very body of God Incarnate who remained united with it.
Regarding the Descension of Christ, the Catechism teaches,
“The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was ‘raised from the dead’ presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (CCC 632).
“It is precisely these holy souls who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he desended into hell” (CCC 633).
Obviously, holy souls did not, and do not, reside in hell. Rather, at the time of Christ’s death they resided in “Abraham’s Bosom” – also called the “Limbo of the Fathers” and “Paradise.” Previous to the atoning death of Christ, this realm of the dead was the closest domain to heaven.
The expression “Abraham’s Bosom” comes from our Lord’s Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. In this teaching, Jesus said,
“And it came to pass that the poor man died and was borne away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; but the rich man also died and was buried in hell. And lifting up his eyes, being in torments, he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom” (Lk. 16:22-24).
This parable reveals a number of extraordinary insights into the afterlife, including the full consciousness and memory of deceased souls, as well as their mediatory functions on behalf of others that in no way offend the supreme mediation of Christ. The saints assist the saints in many ways, because that is how God has arranged salvation.
Various scriptural passages describe the activity of Christ’s human soul on Holy Saturday. Saint John wrote,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is hear, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live” (Jn. 5:25).
And Saint Peter wrote,
“Put to death in the flesh, [Christ] was brought to life in the spirit, in which also he went and preached to those spirits that were in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19).
What exactly did Christ do on Holy Saturday? From the moment He was taken down from the Cross until His Resurrection, Our Savior declared to “the spirits that were in prison” the Good News that the price for their sins had been paid, that their anxious souls had been redeemed, and that the moment of their entrance into the glory of heaven where they would behold the blessed face of God for eternity was near. How near? It is the general teaching of the Church that Christ led the souls from Limbo into heaven at the time of His Ascension – forty days after His Resurrection. And among these souls were Adam and Eve, as well as the good thief.
May we meditate on these holy truths every Good Friday evening and Holy Saturday, and never again imagine that Christ, even in death, rested from His salvific labors.