Holy Saturday: Christ in the tomb and on a mission

Holy Saturday is the most muted day in the Church’s year. No Mass; no sacraments save Confession and those of the last rites; no Holy Communion. The Church is in the tomb with Christ, watching and waiting for the first cry of the Resurrection that will come tomorrow (in liturgical time, tomorrow begins after sunset).

In the Roman Divine Office (though not our monastic Office), at Matins (or as it is now known in the Roman Office, the Office of Readings) is read An ancient homily for Holy Saturday. At least one reader here is captivated by it, and I am sure he is not the only one. Do read it first before reading on here.

It is somewhat shrouded in mystery, or at least the cloak of time; so far I can find little on this homily. It dates from the fourth century, and its author is unknown. It was written in Greek, though this might not help us too much as possibly in the West there were places which worshipped still in Greek, though Latin would soon become the universal norm in the West.

The homily deals with what is traditionally called the Harrowing of Hell: that interregnum when, as the homily says, “the King sleeps”; when Christ’s body lay in death in the tomb, while his human soul, united to his divine person, descended to the realm of the dead.

This descent should not be seen as just the natural result of his human death. It is more. Christ willingly died for a purpose; and his descent to the dead is part of that purpose. Christ goes to Hades on a mission. He goes, tradition has it, to the limbo of the Fathers, where the souls of the just slept in death, waiting for the gates of heaven to be re-opened on the day of salvation. “Hell” in this sense refers not to the realm of the damned, but the underworld, the lowest places, Sheol in Old Testament terms. In other words Christ goes to the realm of the dead to announce to them that their salvation has come and that heaven has opened to them at last, and lead them forth. Christ’s mission is one of liberation, from the jaws of death; and the dead heard the good news before the living.

So the ancient homily for Holy Saturday celebrates this in vivid terms. While on earth there is silence, under the earth (as it were) Christ is emptying Hades with solemnity. The new Adam goes to rescue the first Adam, his father in the flesh, with the command, “awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead”. Adam and his progeny can now rise from the dead because Christ’s human death transforms death for all the children of Adam. For just as what happened in Adam (sin) happened for us all, so too what happened in Christ’s human flesh happened for us all: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Or as the ancient homilist has Christ put it, “Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person”.

Death had, as it were, led humanity into a walled-off, dead-end street; Christ now breaks through that barrier so that death might now launch humankind onto the highway to heaven. For it was for heaven, not for Hades, that God through Christ made us: “I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld”.

The homily continues as an elaboration on the Incarnation, which produced this unity between God and humankind in Christ, and on the Redemption by the Cross, both addressed to Adam by Christ. “I, your God, became your Son… I, the Master, took on your form, that of a slave”. It is almost a litany of paradoxes: the torments and humiliations that Christ endured healed their very causes in sinful human nature. So, says Christ to Adam,

(s)ee the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image… See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one. 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 healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

Christ addresses Adam, the constant “you” in his speech; but Adam stands for all humanity, for us. Adam is the true Everyman. What Christ says he did for Adam he did “for us and for our salvation”, as the Creed teaches us.

Lastly the ancient homilist has Christ remind Adam, and us, that the state of salvation is far better than the state of our original, lost innocence. Original paradise is nothing on heaven:

The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

That is why tonight, in the Exultet, we hear affirmed in solemn and joyful tones, “O truly necessary sin of Adam … O happy fault”. While the guilt and horror of our sin cannot be understated, nevertheless God, in his omniscience, has made of our sin a blessing. What was lost was but a pale image of what is gained. God, in a mystery we will not fathom this side of the grave, made us not for paradise, but for heaven. The ancient homilist’s Christ says as much:

the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.

Let us watch and pray, that we might be awake to hear the clarion call of salvation, both at tonight’s Vigil and on our own, individual passing from this life into death, and we pray, on into eternal life.

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