Rousing the Realm of the Dead

In the life of Christ, there is an event tucked away between Friday’s death and Sunday’s rising about which we know very little. Yet it contains the hidden key on which the whole story turns.

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“Do not move too quickly from the many to the one,” warned Plato five centuries before the coming of Christ, whom he did not know, of course.

Neither Christ’s birth nor His death could Plato have foreseen. But old Plato spoke more truly than he knew—because if you move too quickly, if you hurry along too hastily in search of the one unifying thing, you miss much that lies between. In your headlong rush to arrive at the end, you may be tempted to fast-forward the action, and thus the secret centerpiece of the story will be lost. A terrible beauty is about to be born, pace the poet Yeats, and you will have missed it altogether.

In the life of Christ, there is an event tucked away between Friday’s death and Sunday’s rising about which we know very little. Yet it contains the hidden key on which the whole story turns. What was Christ doing in the tomb during the day and a half He spent there? We know that it was the grave of Joseph of Arimathea. We are told it was hewn from rock not far from Golgotha, where His body was left to decompose. But what became of His spirit? In the creeds we are simply told that He descended into Hell, there to commune in silence among the dead. But what does that mean?   

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The Mystery of Holy Saturday. It is an event, writes Joseph Ratzinger in his landmark exposition of faith Introduction to Christianity, expressing “the unparalleled experience of our age…that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakens, no longer speaks…the descent of God into muteness, into the silence of the absent.”    

It is the God-who-has-died we see. And we don’t need Nietzsche to tell us so, nor any of the other cultured despisers of religion. The Church herself has pronounced it to be so, giving it solemn liturgical expression. She has even found the perfect representation of that fact, having emptied all the tabernacles of Christendom on that day, mute testimony to the fact that God is missing from the world, that He is neither here nor there because, quite simply, He is dead.     

We thus find ourselves in a dark and somber place. It is like an arrow aimed at the heart, leaving a wound that will not go away. God’s absence has become a fixed feature of our lives, this forlorn sense we have that He has gone away, that He is dead. The fear that He will not be coming back may be the final turn of the screw.    

It is really quite the strangest possible kinship between Christ and ourselves, enshrouded together amid the silence of one long, unending Holy Saturday. At the same time, however, it is deeply consoling, a source of profound, continuing comfort. Because silence, too, can be salvific. God is not only the Word who speaks but also the One who, bereft of speech, has chosen freely to enter into a silence of complete solidarity with the souls of all those who cannot speak.  It is really quite the strangest possible kinship between Christ and ourselves, enshrouded together amid the silence of one long, unending Holy Saturday.Tweet This

We are thus faced, says Ratzinger, not only with “the comprehensible word that comes to us, but also the silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended and incomprehensible ground that eludes us.” Indeed, there is grace and truth embedded in that silence, in the midst of all His concealment, just as God hides Himself away in the Eucharist, disguised beneath the accidents of bread, water, and wine.  

“It is only when we have experienced him as silence,” continues Ratzinger, “that we may hope to hear his speech, which proceeds out of the silence.” In fact, it is nourished and strengthened by that silence. And where does the silence begin but in the death rattle that follows upon the awful cry of abandonment from the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Here Christ our Savior and our brother calls out, His voice coming from a depth of longing we can scarcely imagine, not for Himself but for the Father, whom He now perceives as sheer everlasting absence. He is thirsting for the One who, from all eternity, has been His meat and His drink but, alas, has now gone away.

How are we to understand this Cry of Dereliction from the Cross? I do not know. But I share in the mind and the heart of the Church the same certitude of hope, which is that after this our exile we really do not need to ask what prayer in our hour of darkness will be like. “Can it be anything else,” asks Ratzinger, “but the cry from the depths in company with the Lord, who ‘has descended into Hell,’ who has established the nearness of God in the midst of abandonment by God?” A God who not only has offered to share in the pain of our death, the rending of body and soul, but is willing even to share in our being dead, our remaining in death, offering us a companionship of unprecedented intimacy.

Here is what I know, what faith tells me we should all know: that if there be a night into whose darkness we are forced to go, a place where no reassuring voice can reach us, a door through which we must go alone, then it is not the world Christ came to redeem. What the Mystery of Holy Saturday tells us is that God Himself, in the form of the crucified Son, marched through the gate and the grave of death, descending down into that final loneliness to which sin has condemned us all; and there He stood in the midst of all that hellishness, a sadness without end, a privation without reprieve, in order to set us free from it, to release us from a bondage we were never created to have to endure. 

At one stroke, no less, the Kingdom of Hell is overthrown, vanquished forever, because Life has planted its flag in the midst of death. The love of Christ has come to supplant the darkness of death. God is greater than death. “Death,” declares the poet Donne, “thou shalt die.”

The dark dungeon of death has been blown apart by the Lord of life—a God so intensely alive, says Hans Urs von Balthasar, that He can afford to be dead—who having mounted His assault upon that whole netherworld we call Hell, made it possible that none of us need go there unless we choose to do so. And why would anyone want to do that, to take himself down into Hell? Where the door, as C.S. Lewis tells us, is locked on the inside because those who are there refuse to leave. Telling God over and over for all eternity, “I do not want to love. I do not want to be loved. I just want to be left alone.” And God, having paid us the “intolerable compliment” of taking our liberty with utmost seriousness, will not prevent our going there. Although, one cannot help but think, it must be a source of great, even eternal sadness for Him.

From the text of an ancient homily on the Feast of Holy Saturday we read how God has gone down into Sheol, a place of absolute loneliness and loss, a condition without light or hope. “What has happened?” it asks. And we are at once told that on that day, “the whole earth was enshrouded in deep silence, deep silence and stillness, profound silence because the King sleeps …God has died in the flesh, and has gone down into Hell to rouse the realm of the dead.” 

What a lovely image that is. A Father going in to rouse the family He loves from the forgetfulness of sleep. But not every image is as lovely as that; some are far less comforting. Who, for example, on reading Dostoevsky’s account of the dead Christ, His body freshly removed from the Cross, His face shorn of all beauty, has not felt, like Horatio on seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, harrowed with fear and wonder? 

“It is,” recounts Dostoevsky, 

In every detail the corpse of a man who has endured infinite agony….Nothing is rigid in it yet so that there’s still a look of suffering in the face of the dead man, as though he were still feeling it…and as one looks at this corpse of a tortured man, a peculiar and curious question arises; if just such a corpse was seen by all his disciples…by the women who followed him and stood by the cross…how could they believe that he would rise again?…If death is so awful and the law of nature so mighty, how can they be overcome…when even he did not conquer them…. And if the Teacher could have seen himself on the eve of the crucifixion, would he have gone up to the cross and died as he did?

But, then, He had seen Himself, in Gethsemane, the night before; and from the sheer stupefying extremity of that horror, His sweat became, we are told, like so many drops of blood fallen upon the ground. What else is Gethsemane but a vision of Golgotha? The cry in the garden points beyond itself, to the place of the skull, to the hill where it will be heard no more. And three times, no less, will the Son’s prayer go out to the Father unanswered. Three times will He ask; and as often as He asks, He will be refused. The only prayer in the New Testament that was not granted. 

Well, if Gethsemane points to Golgotha, to what does Golgotha point? To Easter? Yes, most certainly it does, but it will not do to arrive any sooner than Christ Our Lord. Once again, do not move too quickly from the many to the one. So, where does Christ go if not directly to Easter? He goes into the silence of all that falls between. He goes, in a word, to Hell.

Here the Shroud of Turin comes into view, the image looming before us of a man wrapped in a winding sheet, His wounds clearly consistent with crucifixion, protracted torture, and death. It is the perfect Icon of Holy Saturday, every detail corresponding exactly with the account set down in the Gospels. And it speaks to us. The hands and the feet, the face of Christ, they speak, they tell a story. The wound in the side most of all. And how does the Shroud speak? In what way does it communicate its message? With blood. It speaks with blood. And what blood bespeaks more than anything else, as Pope Benedict would remind us on his visit to Turin to pray before the Shroud, is life. 

“The Shroud is an Icon,” he said, “written in blood;

the blood of a man who was scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified and whose right side was pierced. The Image impressed upon the Shroud is that of a dead man, but the blood speaks of his life…Especially that huge stain near his rib, made by the blood and water that flowed copiously from a great wound inflicted by the tip of a Roman spear. That blood and that water speak of life…like a spring that murmurs in the silence and we can hear it, we can listen to it in the silence of Holy Saturday.

May the Mystery of Holy Saturday, through the grace of the holy Icon that gives it expression, be a source of life-giving water for all of us.

[Image: “Christ’s Descent into Hell” by Follower of Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, second quarter 16th century)]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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