We Were Delivered From Death by Death

The Mystery of Holy Saturday tells us is that God himself marched through the gate of death, releasing us from a state of bondage we were never created to have to endure.

Pablo de Céspedes, “The Harrowing of Hell,” ca. 1600
Pablo de Céspedes, “The Harrowing of Hell,” ca. 1600 (photo: Public Domain)

What is faith? Is there a sentence around somewhere that will summarize it for us? That was the question a young German priest and professor by the name of Joseph Ratzinger put to his students back in the summer of 1967. The result was a series of lectures that became Introduction To Christianity, a work so captivating that on the strength of its argument a future saint by the name of Pope Paul VI practically made him a bishop on the spot, setting in motion a series of elevations that would eventuate in his becoming pope. 

While I can’t speak for others about the impact the book had on their lives, I will say that it certainly produced a great sea change in my own. It moved me to take up the serious study of Catholic theology, which, for all the money I have not made doing it, has nevertheless brought me no end of enrichment and joy. What was it that so endeared me to the book, and to its author? Oddly enough, it was single section, consisting of only eight pages, in which he describes the event of Christ’s Descent into Hell, arguably the deepest and darkest mystery of faith, located right at the heart of the Creed.

So riveting was the performance that I’ve never quite recovered from it. In fact, I’ve wondered and written about it ever since, including a dissertation from the Angelicum, later parlayed into a book brought out by Ignatius Press called The Suffering of Love: Christ’s Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness. Essays and lectures have followed, becoming something of a cottage industry. The essay you’re reading now is another instance of my engagement with the subject.  

What exactly is this mystery, then, which we call Holy Saturday? It is the feast that falls between Christ’s death on Friday and his rising on Sunday. And do not move too quickly from the one to the other, lest you miss all that happens in between. The music of Holy Saturday is dolorous and dark, but the notes need to be played. 

It is the day on which God is dead. It is not a mere interlude between two vastly more consequential events. Not an event solely in the past, since codified in the official creeds, but one that is happening even now, carrying an unmistakable application for our own age.  How so? Because, says Ratzinger, it expresses “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 dark silence of the absent.” 

The Death of God. It was not necessary that Nietzsche tell us this, or that all the other cultured despisers of religion co-sign the obituary. The Church knew it long before it became fashionable to announce his passing. It was the Church that pronounced him dead. In fact, she provides solemn liturgical expression of the fact each year when, following the Good Friday observance, she empties all the tabernacles of Christendom. Surely, the most eloquent testimony that God is gone, declared missing from the world, neither here nor there because, quite simply, he is dead.

It is the strangest kinship imaginable, isn’t it, between ourselves and God? Here we are, enshrouded together, amid the silence of one long and seemingly endless Holy Saturday.  At the same time, however, it is the most deeply consoling kinship of all. Because what it affirms is the fact, so mysteriously wrought from the depths of Christ’s journey into the abyss, that silence too can be salvific. That God is not only the Word who speaks, but also the one who, in his wordless descent into the silence, has struck a note of profoundest solidarity with all who remain silent. Silent because they too are dead. 

“There is not only the comprehensible word that comes to us,” he insists, “but also the silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended and incomprehensible ground that eludes us.” That, indeed, there is grace and truth embedded in that silence, in the midst of God’s concealment, just as he hides himself so completely in the Eucharist, wearing his disguise beneath the accidents of bread, water and wine.

“It is only when we have experienced him as silence,” he continues, “that we may hope to hear his speech, which proceeds out of the silence.” Speech nourished and strengthened by that very silence. And where does the silence begin? It begins in no other place than the Cross, heard unmistakably in the death rattle that follows upon the awful cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Here it is Christ our brother who calls out, from a depth of longing we can scarcely imagine; not for himself, but for the Father, who has seemingly withdrawn his presence.

“After this,” asks Ratzinger, “do we still need to ask what prayer in our hour of darkness must be? Can it be anything else 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?” Who not only has offered to share in the pain of our having to die, that fearful rending of body and soul awaiting us all, but is willing even to share in our being dead, our remaining in death, a companionship of unutterable intimacy and love.

Here is what I know, and what faith tells me we all most urgently need to know: that if there were a night the darkness of which we will be forced to face, a place where no reassuring voice will ever reach us, a door through which we must all go alone, then it is not the world Christ came to redeem and rescue us from.

What the Mystery of Holy Saturday tells us, and upon which all the certitudes of our faith depend, is that God himself, in the form of the crucified Son, marched through the gate and grave of death, descending down into that final loneliness to which sin has condemned us all, in order to set us free from all the hellishness of it, releasing us from a state of bondage we were never created to have to endure.

“Hell is thereby overcome,” writes Ratzinger, thanks to the Good News Christ brought, “because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.”

Death, as the poet Donne will exult in reminding death that he has no reason to be proud, “Death, thou shalt die.”