Descendit ad infernos: Holy Saturday and meditating on Hell

Originally posted

Holy Saturday: descendit ad infernos

Blessed Triduum to all. I’m off to church to meditate on Hell, where the souls of poor sinners go. Our Lord went there on this day to rescue the souls of the righteous, who were waiting in Limbo (not the place of eternal damnation, but a section of Hell nonetheless) for the redemptive act of Good Friday to take place.

The imagery of Hell is meant to be used as a tool; a deterrent. The actual horror of being separated from God, forever, by our own free choice, is something our intellect can barely grasp. The physical torments are but a proxy for the never ending sense of loss, and the pain of having made that personal choice, despite knowing better. Developing your relationship with Jesus Christ is the key to making right choices. He has told you what is important to Him, what hurts Him, and what He expects from you. He wants you to be with Him forever.

“For God hath not appointed us unto wrath, but unto the purchasing of salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us; that, whether we watch or sleep, we may live together with him.” 1 Thes 5:9-10

Below is adapted from a previous post:

Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae,
et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,
passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,
descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,
ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis,
inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem,
remissionem peccatorum,
carnis resurrectionem,
vitam aeternam.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell; On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

This is the Apostles’ Creed. It’s most commonly recited during the Rosary. Some N.O. parishes in the U.S. use it during Lent, but it’s uncommon. I believe it’s used during all Sunday Masses in Canada and some other countries. Pious legend has it that each of the apostles contributed one the twelve articles of faith (represented by the twelve lines the creed is broken into).

Today is Holy Saturday, the day Jesus descended into Hell, a real actual place, to rescue the just souls who had been waiting there in limbo for the coming of our Lord. Although they had died free from mortal sin, the gates of Heaven could not be opened to them without the redeeming sacrifice of the cross. So the day after the Crucifixion, Jesus went to free them.

Except, that’s not exactly accurate. To say that the gates of Heaven “could not” be opened prior to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice would be to place limits on God’s omnipotence. Time is a construct, and God is not bound by it. If He had so desired, He could have retroactively applied the merits of the cross to the righteous souls at the time of their earthly death, but He chose not to. Instead, He reserved the job to Himself to apply it “in person.”

An interesting contrast is the Immaculate Conception, which was the unique result of God preserving Mary from the stain of original sin by applying the redemptive value of the Crucifixion to her at the moment of her conception. Mary, the first tabernacle, could not possibly be impure in any way, because God will not dwell within anything impure (and nothing impure can dwell within God, hence mine will be a long, long Purgatory, God willing). So not being bound by time, and since all events of all eternity occur simultaneously and eternally for God, He chose to preserve Mary from original sin by the retroactive application of grace from an event that had not yet occurred in “real time”.

Back to the descendit ad infernos. Go ahead and picture yourself in the scene. Meditate on how hard it must have been for the righteous of antiquity to die in the state of grace. Think about how much easier we have it, with access to the fullness of Truth, the Barque, the Eucharist, the example of the saints. If they could make it, shouldn’t it be easy for us?

And yet.

The event has been stunningly depicted in iconography through the ages. Much of it is pretty graphic in terms of the furnishings of the place, and demons certainly do come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I’m reproducing a few tame examples here.

Image result for harrowing of hell
Image result for harrowing of hell
Image result for harrowing of hell
Image result for harrowing of hell
Related image
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

I leave you with the famous “Ancient Homily” for Holy Saturday:

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.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him, Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying:

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

“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. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth.

“For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

“See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

“The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

3 thoughts on “Descendit ad infernos: Holy Saturday and meditating on Hell”

  1. My own personal opinion, not based on anything I’ve ever read, or any sort of “vision” I’ve been granted or things of that nature, it’s just a thought that makes me smile.
    I like to imagine that with this event, Our Lord’s reunion specifically with His stepfather St. Joseph would’ve been something Joyful, second only to the Coronation of His Mother.

    1. They say that the only troubled soul liberated this day was St. Joseph, over the sorrows of the BVM, and that he was about to experience the Beatific Vision while she yet remained on earth. It’s an interesting thought.

  2. Mark,
    In the version I’ve seen of the Apostles Creed, the word “Inferos” is used rather than “infernos”. I think this is indicative of “the lower regions” rather than the unquenchable flames. I don’t think this changes the meaning of your message, but provides a slightly different nuance.
    I very much appreciate your emails and I enjoy hearing you speak with Miss Ann B.
    Blessed Easter to you and your family.
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