Our Lord’s descent into hell, under whose aegis Holy Saturday stands liturgically in the Church’s year, is an article of faith that is of particular significance to modern man. On Good Friday we contemplate Christ on the Cross, and on Easter Sunday we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.
In the interim, on Holy Saturday, the words of Nietzsche, if not his underlying meaning, are entirely appropriate: “God is dead, and we have killed Him.”
Too often, own experience is that God is effectively dead in our midst. The scandal of the death of Christendom, coupled with the alarming rise of aggressive secular atheism, shakes the very foundations of our being.
In addition, the theater of human experience is bound by sensible structures. Not only is God believed by many to be “dead,” but as Pope Benedict reminded us in his famous 2006 lecture at Regensburg, modern philosophy and science severely limit the scope of the inquiry.
Death is a mystery that cannot be objectified by of us who are still pilgrims in this life. At the heart of it, however, we intuit that death entails a radical loneliness and complete abandonment. We sense that death is a region of fear from which there is no escape. Even the very act of dying is something that ultimately must be done alone; only I can die my own death.
For post-Christian man, who has had his hopes dashed by the iconoclasm of the Enlightenment and the unprecedented bloodshed of the past century, death means utter destruction, and its prospect produces a profound terror and gloom for which a “humanized,” demythologized (i.e., emasculated) religion is unable to provide consolation. For this reason, death becomes the elephant in the living room–always to be dealt with, despite our best efforts to avoid it or forget it’s there. Yet in the end, the avoidance of reality itself is a foretaste of hell.
Praise be to God, Christ has conquered death: Christian faith boldly offers not only deliverance from death, but also from a life devoid of meaning.
Christ’s descent into hell results in an experience of a God who is silent, inaccessible, and incomprehensible. We recognize God’s abiding concealment, which subjects us to mockery (e.g., 1 Kings 18; Mk. 4:35-41) when we are unable to prove His presence scientifically or empirically. Such concealment is not absence, but requires a type of seeing (faith), not yet accessed by some, that impels us to seek Him who came to save us.
The death of God, His complete condescension, destroyed death as hell. His saving love reaches beyond the grave. With the power of death destroyed, hope once again conquers despair. However, this hope is a theological virtue, and thus is dependent upon Christian faith. In a society that largely rejects Christ, Holy Saturday does not lead to Easter, and that is hell.
For us believers, the most fitting beatitude may be “blessed are those who mourn,” those who accept the vicissitudes and sufferings of life, and in particular, death. The blessing is not the elimination of suffering and death, but consolation. We are “comforted” (Mt. 5:4) by a God who literally is “strong with us,” whose love is stronger than death (Song 8:6).