Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 13812). (HH Pope Benedict XVI, Holy Saturday, 2007)
Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience 19-03-2008
Holy Saturday is marked by a deep silence. The Churches are left undecorated and there are no
particular liturgies set aside for this day. While waiting for the Resurrection, the faithful persevere in the wait with Mary by praying and meditating. A day
of silence is necessary to ponder the reality of human life, the forces of evil and the enormous power of good
unleashed by the passion and resurrection of Christ. Great importance is given during this time to participation in the sacrament of reconciliation,
indispensable for the purification of the heart and to prepare for the celebration of Easter completely renewed. We need to undertake this inner purification and renewal of ourselves at least once a year. This Saturday of silence, of meditation, of forgiveness, of reconciliation leads into the Easter Vigil, which introduces the most important Sunday in history, the Sunday that marks the Passover of Christ. The Church holds vigil next to the newly blessed fire and meditates on the great promise contained in the Old and New Testaments, of the conclusive liberation
from the ancient slavery to sin and death. In the darkness of the night, the Easter candle is lit from the new fire as a symbol of Christ who rises again in glory. Christ, the light of humanity, dispels any shadows in the heart and the spirit and illuminates all men who
come into the world. Together with the lighting of the Easter candle, the great Easter announcement reverberates throughout the Church: Christ has truly
risen, death no longer has any power over him. With his death he defeats evil forever and makes man a gift of God’s own life.www.zenit.org 19-03-2008
VON BALTHASAR’S TEACHING ON THE DESCENT INTO HELL by Aidan Nichols O.P.
source: Excerpt from “Balthasar, His Christology and the Mystery of Easter” by Fr Aidan Nichols O.P.
The importance of the concept of contemplation for Balthasar’s approach to Christ can be seen by comparing his view of perceiving God in Christ with the notion of looking at a painting and seeing what the artist has been doing in it. In Christian faith, the captivating force (the ‘subjective evidence’) of the artwork which is Christ takes hold of our imaginative powers; we enter into the ‘painterly world’ which this discloses and, entranced by what we see, come to contemplate the glory of sovereign love of God in Christ (the ‘objective evidence’) as manifested in the concrete events of his life, death and resurrection. So entering his glory, we become absorbed by it, but this very absorption sends us out into the world in sacrificial love like that of Jesus.
This is the foundation of Balthasar’s Christology, but its content is a series of meditations on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. His Christology is highly concrete and has been compared, suggestively, to the iconography of Andrei Rublev and Georges Roualt. Balthasar is not especially concerned with the ontological make-up of Christ, with the hypostatic union and its implications, except insofar as these are directly involved in an account of the mysteries of the life. In each major moment (‘mystery’) of the life, we see some aspect of the total Gestalt Christi, and through this the Gestalt Gottes itself. Although Balthasar stresses the narrative unity of these episodes, which is founded on the obedience that takes the divine Son from incarnation to passion, an obedience which translates his inner-Trinitarian being as the Logos, filial responsiveness to the Father, his principal interest — nowhere more eloquently expressed than in the present work — is located very firmly in an unusual place. This place is the mystery of Christ’s Descent into Hell, which Balthasar explicitly calls the centre of all Christology. Because the Descent is the final point reached by the Kenosis, and the Kenosis is the supreme expression of the inner-Trinitarian love, the Christ of Holy Saturday is the consummate icon of what God is like. While not relegating the Crucifixion to a mere prelude — far from it! — Balthasar sees the One who was raised at Easter as not primarily the Crucified, but rather the One who for us went down into Hell. The ‘active’ Passion of Good Friday is not, at any rate, complete without the ‘passive’ Passion of Holy Saturday which was its sequel.
Balthasar’s account of the Descent is indebted to the visionary experiences of Adrienne von Speyr, and is a world away from the concept of a triumphant preaching to the just which nearly all traditional accounts of the going down to Hell come under. Balthasar stresses Christ’s solidarity with the dead, his passivity, his finding himself in a situation of total self-estrangement and alienation from the Father. For Balthasar, the Descent ‘solves’ the problem of theodicy, by showing us the conditions on which God accepted our foreknown abuse of freedom: namely, his own plan to take to himself our self-damnation in Hell. It also demonstrates the costliness of our redemption: the divine Son underwent the experience of Godlessness. Finally, it shows that the God revealed by the Redeemer is a Trinity. Only if the Spirit, as vinculum amoris between the Father and the Son, can re-relate Father and Son in their estrangement in the Descent, can the unity of the Revealed and Revealer be maintained. In this final humiliation of the "forma servi", the glorious "forma Dei" shines forth via its lowest pitch of self-giving love.
Mysterium Paschale could not, however, be an account of the paschal mystery, the mystery of Easter, unless it moved on, following the fate of the Crucified himself, to the Father’s acceptance of his sacrifice, which we call the Resurrection. Whilst not over-playing the role of the empty tomb — which is, after all, a sign, with the limitations which that word implies, Balthasar insists, in a fashion highly pertinent to a recurrent debate in England, as well as in Continental Europe, that the Father in raising the Son does not go back on the Incarnation: that is, he raises the Son into visibility, rather than returns him to the pre-incarnate condition of the invisible Word. The Resurrection appearances are not visionary experiences but personal encounters, even though the Resurrection itself cannot be adequately thought by means of any concept, any comparison.
COMMENTARY ON HOLY SATURDAY
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
This is the Blessed Sabbath
The "Great and Holy Sabbath" is the day which connects Good Friday, the commemoration of the Cross, with the day of Christ’s Resurrection. To many the real nature and meaning of this "connection," the very necessity of this "middle day," remains obscure. For a good majority of churchgoers, the "important" days of Holy Week are Friday and Sunday, the Cross and the Resurrection. These two days, however, remain somehow "disconnected." There is a day of sorrow, and then, there is the day of joy. In this sequence, sorrow is simply replaced by joy . . . But according to the teaching of the Church, expressed in her liturgical tradition, the nature of this sequence is not that of a simple replacement. The Church proclaims that Christ has "trampled death by death." It means that even before the Resurrection, an event takes place in which the sorrow is not simply replaced by joy, but is itself transformed into joy. Great Saturday is precisely this day of transformation, the day when victory grows from inside the defeat, when before the Resurrection, we are given to contemplate the death of death itself... all this is expressed, and even more, all this really takes place every year in this marvellous morning service, in this liturgical commemoration which becomes for us a saving and transforming present.
Psalm 119 — Love for the Law of God
On coming to Church for the Matins of Holy Saturday, Friday has just been liturgically completed. The sorrow of Friday is, therefore, the initial theme, the starting point of Matins of Saturday. It begins as a funeral service, as a lamentation over a dead body. After the singing of the funeral troparia and a slow censing of the church, the celebrants approach the Epitaphion. We stand at the grave of our Lord, we contemplate His death, His defeat. Psalm 119 is sung and to each verse we add a special "praise," which expresses the horror of men and of the whole creation before the death of Jesus:
O hills and valleys,
the multitude of men,
and all creation, weep and lament with me,
the Mother of your God. (I:69)
And yet, from the very beginning, along with this initial theme of sorrow and lamentation, a new theme makes its appearance and will become more and more apparent. We find it, first of all, in Psalm 119 — "Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord." In our liturgical practice today this psalm is used only at the funeral services, hence its "funeral" connotation for the average believer. But in early liturgical tradition this psalm was one of the essential parts of the Sunday vigil, the weekly commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection. Its content is not "funeral" at all. This psalm is the purest and the fullest expression of love for the law of God, i.e., for the Divine design of man and of his life. The real life, the one which man lost through sin, consists in keeping, in fulfilling the Divine law, that life with God, in God and for God, for which man was created.
In the ways of Thy testimonies, I delight as much as in all riches. . . (v. 14)
I will delight in Thy statutes. . . (v. 16)
And since Christ is the image of the perfect fulfillment of this law, since His whole life had no other "content" but the fulfillment of His Father’s will, the Church interprets this psalm as the words of Christ Himself, spoken to His Father from the grave.
Consider how I love Thy precepts! Give me life, according to Thy mercy. . . (v. 159)
The death of Christ is the ultimate proof of His love for the will of God, of His obedience to His Father. It is an act of pure obedience, of full trust in the Father’s will; and for the Church it is precisely this obedience to the end, this perfect humility of the Son that constitutes the foundation, the beginning of His victory. The Father desires this death, the Son accepts it, revealing an unconditional faith in the perfection of the Father’s will, in the necessity of this sacrifice of the Son by the Father. Psalm 119 is the psalm of that obedience, and therefore the announcement that in obedience the triumph has begun.
The Encounter with Death
But why does the Father desire this death? Why is it necessary? The answer to this question constitutes the third theme of our service, and it appears first in the "praises," which follow each verse of Psalm 119. They describe the death of Christ as His descent into Hades. "Hades" in the concrete biblical language means the realm of death, which God has not created and which He did not want; it also signifies that the Prince of this world is all-powerful in the world. Satan, Sin, Death — these are the "dimensions" of Hades, its content. For sin comes from Satan and Death is the result of sin — "sin entered into the world, and death by sin" (Romans 5:12), "Death reigned from Adam to Moses" (Romans 5:14), the entire universe has become a cosmic cemetery, was condemned to destruction and despair. And this is why death is "the last enemy," (I Corinthians 15:20) and its destruction constitutes the ultimate goal of the Incarnation. This encounter with death is the "hour" of Christ of which He said that "for this hour have I come. (John 12:27)
Now this hour has come and the Son of God enters into Death. The Fathers usually describe this moment as a duel between Christ and Death, Christ and Satan. For this death was to be either the last triumph of Satan, or his decisive defeat. The duel develops in several stages. At first, the forces of evil seem to triumph. The Righteous One is crucified, abandoned by all, and endures a shameful death. He also becomes the partaker of "Hades," of this place of darkness and despair . . . but at this very moment, the real meaning of this death is revealed. The One who dies on the Cross has Life in Himself, i.e., He has life not as a gift from outside, a gift which therefore can be taken away from Him, but as His own essence. For He is the Life and the Source of all life. "In Him was Life and Life was the light of man." The man Jesus dies, but this Man is the Son of God. As man, He can really die, but in Him, God Himself enters the realm of death, partakes of death. This is the unique, the incomparable meaning of Christ’s death. In it, the man who dies is God, or to be more exact, the God-Man. God is the Holy Immortal; and only in the unity "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" of God and Man in Christ can human death be "assumed" by God and be overcome and destroyed from within, be "trampled down by death."
Death is Overcome by Life
Now we understand why God desires that death, why the Father gives His Only-Begotten Son to it. He desires the salvation of man, i.e., that the destruction of death shall not be an act of His power ("Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He shall presently give Me more than twelve legions of angels?" Matthew 26:53), not a violence, be it even a saving one, but an act of that love, freedom and free dedication to God for which He created man. For any other salvation would have been in opposition to the nature of man, and, therefore, not a real salvation. Hence the necessity of the Incarnation and the necessity of that Divine death. In Christ, man restores obedience and love. In Him, man overcomes sin and evil. It was essential that death be not only destroyed by God, but overcome and trampled down in human nature itself, by man and through man. "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead." (I Corinthians 15:21)
Christ freely accepts death; of His life He says that "no man taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself." (John 10:18) He does it not without a fight: "and He began to be sorrowful and very heavy." (Matthew 26:27) Here is fulfilled the measure of His obedience and, therefore, here is the destruction of the moral root of death, of death as the ransom for sin. The whole life of Jesus is in God as every human life ought to be, and it is this fullness of Life, this life full of meaning and content, full of God, that overcomes death, destroys its power. For death is, above all, a lack of life, a destruction of life that has cut itself from its only source. And because Christ’s death is a movement of love towards God, an act of obedience and trust, of faith and perfection — it is an act of life ("Father! Into Thy hands I commend My spirit," Luke 23:46) which destroys death. It is the death of death itself.
Such is the meaning of Christ’s descent into Hades, of His death becoming His victory. And the light of this victory now illumines our vigil before the Grave.
O Life, how canst Thou die?
How canst Thou dwell in a tomb?
Yet by Thy death Thou hast destroyed the reign of death, and raised all the dead from hell. (1:2)
In a tomb they laid Thee, O Christ the Life. By Thy death Thou hast cast down the might of death and become the font of life for all the world. (1:7)
O, how great the joy, how full the gladness, that Thou hast brought to Hades’ prisoners, like lightning flashing in its gloomy depths. (1:49)
Life enters the Kingdom of death. The Divine Light shines in its terrible darkness. It shines to all who are there, because Christ is the life of all, the only source of every life. Therefore He also dies for all, for whatever happens to His life — happens in Life itself ... This descent into Hades is the encounter of the Life of all with the death of all:
Wishing to save Adam,
Thou didst come down to earth.
Not finding him on earth, O Master,
Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him. (1:25)
Sorrow and joy are fighting each other and now joy is about to win. The "praises" are over. The dialogue, the duel between Life and Death comes to its end. And, for the first time, the song of victory and triumph, the song of joy resounds. It resounds in the "troparia on Psalm 119," sung at each Sunday vigil, at the approach of the Resurrection day:
The angelic host was filled with awe when it saw Thee among the dead! By destroying the power of death, O Savior, Thou didst raise Adam and save all men from hell!
In the tomb the radiant angel cried to the myrrhbearers, "Why do you women mingle myrrh with your tears? Look at the tomb and understand: the Savior has risen from the dead!"
The Life-giving Tomb
Then comes the beautiful Canon of Great Saturday, in which once more all the themes of this service — from the funeral lamentation to the victory over death are resumed and deepened, and which ends with this order:
Let creation rejoice! Let all born on earth be glad! For hateful hell has been despoiled. Let the women with myrrh come to meet me; for I am redeeming Adam and Eve and all their descendants, and on the third day shall I arise!
"And on the third day shall I arise!" From now on paschal joy illumines the service. We are still standing before the Tomb, but it has been revealed to us as the life-giving Tomb. Life rests in it, a new creation is being born, and once more, on the Seventh Day, the day of rest the Creator rests from all His work. "The Life sleeps and Hell trembles" — and we contemplate, this blessed Sabbath, the solemn quiet of the One who brings life back to us: "Come, let us see our life lying in the tomb. . ." The full meaning, the mystical depth of the Seventh Day, as the day of fulfillment, the day of achievement is now revealed, for
The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day, when he said,
God blessed the seventh day.
This is the Blessed Sabbath;
this is the day of rest,
on which the Only-Begotten Son of God rested from all His works.
By suffering death to fulfill the plan of salvation,
He kept the Sabbath in the flesh;
by returning again to what He was,
He has granted us eternal life through His resurrection,
for He alone is good, and the Lover of man.
We now go around the Church in a solemn procession with the Epitaphion, but it is not a funeral procession. It is the Son of God, the Holy immortal, who proceeds through the darkness of Hades, announcing to "Adam of all generation" the joy of forthcoming resurrection. "Rising early from the night," He proclaims, "The dead shall arise, those in the tombs shall awake, and all those on earth shall greatly rejoice."
Expectation of Life
We return to the Church. We know already the mystery of Christ’s life-giving death. Hades is destroyed. Hades trembles. And now the last theme appears — the theme of Resurrection.
Sabbath, the seventh day, achieves and completes the history of salvation, its last act being the overcoming of death. But after the Sabbath comes the first day of a new creation, of a new life born from the grave.
The theme of Resurrection is inaugurated in the Prokeimenon:
Arise, O Lord, and help us! Deliver us for Thy Name’s sake. We have heard with our ears, O God...
It is continued in the first lesson: the prophecy of Ezekiel on the dry bones (ch. 37). ". . . There were very many in the open valley, and, behold, they were very dry." It is death triumphing in the world, the darkness, the hopelessness of this universal sentence to death. But God speaks to the prophet. He announces that this sentence is not the ultimate destiny of man. The dry bones will hear the words of the Lord. The dead will live again. "Behold, My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of the graves, and bring you up into the land of Israel ..." Following this prophecy comes the second prokeimenon — with the same appeal, the same prayer:
Arise, O Lord my God, lift up Thy Hand! . . .
How will it happen, how is this universal resurrection possible? The second lesson (I Corinthians 5:6, Galatians 3:13-14) gives the answer: "a little leaven leveneth the whole lump…" Christ, our Pascha, is this leaven of the resurrection of all. As His death destroys the very principle of death, His Resurrection is the token of the resurrection of all, for His life is the source of every life. And the verses of the "Alleluia," the same verses which will inaugurate the Easter service, sanction this final answer, the certitude that the time of the new creation, of the day without evening, has begun:
Alleluia! Let God arise! Let His enemies be scattered! Let those who hate Him flee from before His face ... Alleluia! As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish, as wax melts before the fire!
The reading of the prophecies is over. Yet, we have heard but prophecies. We are still in Great Saturday before Christ’s tomb, and we have to live through this long day, before we hear at midnight: "Christ is risen," before we enter into the celebration of His Resurrection. Thus, the third lesson — Matthew 27:62-66 — which completes the service, tells us once more about the Tomb — "which was made secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard."
But it is probably here, at the very end of Matins, that the ultimate meaning of this "middle day" is made manifest. Christ rose again from the dead, His Resurrection we will celebrate on Easter Day. This celebration, however, commemorates a unique event of the past, and anticipates a mystery of the future. It is already His Resurrection, but not yet ours. We will have to die, to accept the dying, the separation, the destruction. Our reality in this world, in this "aeon," is the reality of the Great Saturday; this day is the real image of our human condition. We believe in the Resurrection, because Christ has risen from the dead. We expect the Resurrection. We know that Christ’s death is no longer the hopeless, the ultimate end of everything. Baptized into His death, we partake already of His life that came out of the grave. We receive His Body and Blood which are the food of immortality. We have in ourselves the token, the anticipation of the eternal life. All our Christian existence is measured by these acts of communion to the life of the "new eon" of the Kingdom, and yet we are here, and death is our inescapable share.
But this life between the Resurrection of Christ and the day of the common resurrection, is it not precisely the life in the Great Saturday? Is not expectation the basic and essential category of Christian experience? We wait in love, hope and faith. And this waiting for "the resurrection and the life of the world to come," this life which is "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:34), this growth of expectation in love, in certitude; all this is our own "Great Saturday." Little by little everything in this world becomes transparent to the light that comes from there, the "image of this world" passes by and this indestructible life with Christ becomes our supreme and ultimate value.
Every year, on Great Saturday, after this morning service, we wait for the Easter night and the fullness of Paschal joy. We know that they are approaching — and yet, how slow is this approach, how long is this day! But is not the wonderful quiet of Great Saturday the symbol of our very life in this world? Are we not always in this "middle day," waiting for the Pascha of Christ, preparing ourselves for the day without evening of His Kingdom?
TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH
We sing that Christ is ". . . trampling down death by death" in the troparion of Easter. This phrase gives great meaning to Holy Saturday. Christ’s repose in the tomb is an "active" repose. He comes in search of His fallen friend, Adam, who represents all men. Not finding him on earth, He descends to the realm of death, known as Hades in the Old Testament. There He finds him and brings him life once again. This is the victory: the dead are given life. The tomb is no longer a forsaken, lifeless place. By His death Christ tramples down death.
THE ICON OF THE DESCENT INTO HADES
The traditional icon used by the Church on the feast of Easter is an icon of Holy Saturday: the descent of Christ into Hades. It is a painting of theology, for no one has ever seen this event. It depicts Christ, radiant in hues of white and blue, standing on the shattered gates of Hades. With arms outstretched He is joining hands with Adam and all the other Old Testament righteous whom He has found there. He leads them from the kingdom of death. By His death He tramples death.
Today Hades cries out groaning:
"I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
"He came and destroyed my power.
"He shattered the gates of brass.
"As God, He raised the souls I had held captive."
Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord!
(Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday)
THE VESPERAL LITURGY
The Vespers of Holy Saturday inaugurates the Paschal celebration, for the liturgical cycle of the day always begins in the evening. In the past, this service constituted the first part of the great Paschal vigil during which the catechumens were baptized in the "baptisterion" and led in procession back into the church for participation in their first Divine Liturgy, the Paschal Eucharist. Later, with the number of catechumens increasing, the first baptismal part of the Paschal celebration was disconnected from the liturgy of the Paschal night and formed our pre-paschal service: Vespers and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great which follows it. It still keeps all the marks of the early celebration of Pascha as baptismal feast and that of Baptism as Paschal sacrament (death and resurrection with Jesus Christ — Romans 6).
On "Lord I call" the Sunday Resurrectional stichira of tone 1 are sung, followed by the special stichiras of Holy Saturday, which stress the death of Christ as descent into Hades, the region of death, for its destruction. But the pivotal point of the service occurs after the Entrance, when fifteen lessons from the Old Testament are read, all centered on the promise of the Resurrection, all glorifying the ultimate Victory of God, prophesied in the victorious Song of Moses after the crossing of the Red Sea ("Let us sing to the Lord for gloriously has He been glorified"), the salvation of Jonah, and that of the three youths in the furnace.
Then the epistle is read, the same epistle that is still read at Baptism (Romans 6:3-11), in which Christ’s death and resurrection become the source of the death in us of the "old man," the resurrection of the new, whose life is in the Risen Lord. During the special verses sung after the epistle, "Arise O God and judge the earth," the dark Lenten vestments are put aside and the clergy vest in the bright white ones, so that when the celebrant appears with the Gospel the light of Resurrection is truly made visible to us, the "Rejoice" with which the Risen Christ greeted the women at the grave is experienced as being directed to us.
The Liturgy of St. Basil continues in this white and joyful light, revealing the Tomb of Christ as the Life-giving Tomb, introducing us into the ultimate reality of Christ’s Resurrection, communicating His life to us, the children of fallen Adam.
One can and must say that of all services of the Church that are inspiring, meaningful, revealing, this one — the Vespers and Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the Great and Holy Saturday — is truly the liturgical climax of the Church. If one opens one’s heart and mind to it and accepts its meaning and its light, the very truth of Orthodoxy is given by it, the taste and the joy of that new life which shown forth from the grave.
Rev. Alexander Schmemann