April 3, 2021
… suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell ….
How ought Christians spend Holy Saturday morning and afternoon? Is this time simply an extension of the tenor and tone of Good Friday? What happened to Jesus during the time between His Death and Resurrection?
Although Jesus was not subject to death as every sinner is, Jesus submitted to death. His sacred Body did not undergo corruption or decay during this time. However, Jesus was “divided”, so to speak, during the time between His Death and Resurrection.
When a sinner such as you or I dies, the sinner’s body and soul are separated. The body decays, while the soul heads off towards its eternal reward or punishment. The souls of those headed for Heaven may have to wayfare through Purgatory. Yet regardless of where the soul heads after death, it will not be reunited with its body until the end of time. However, after Jesus’ death, something very different happened.
The Nicene Creed, which the Church usually professes at Sunday Mass, does not mention what Jesus did between His burial and His Resurrection. But the Apostles’ Creed does affirm that “he descended into hell” (Latin: “infernos”; Hebrew: “Sheol”; Greek: “Hades”). This is not the place where the damned face eternal punishment. Instead, the Catechism refers to it simply as “the abode of the dead” [CCC 633].
Even morally good persons who died before Christ’s saving Death were destined for this “abode of the dead”. Due to the merit of sin, both Original Sin and actual sin, even those who were just in terms of their human moral actions could not enter Heaven. Only by the grace and merit of Christ’s Passion and Death could anyone enter into the presence of the Trinity in Heaven.
So when Jesus descended into the abode of the dead, He revealed Himself—bearing the wounds of His Passion and Death—to the just. Those who wished were able to follow Jesus out of that abode and into Heaven. This saving work that Jesus carried out is traditionally called “the harrowing of Hell”. This saving work that Jesus performed even as His sacred Body lay in death reminds us of the depth and extent of God’s love. At the same time, this work is a call to Jesus’ disciples to bear in daily life a love for others that is as deep and extensive.