“‘By the grace of God’ Jesus tasted death ‘for everyone.’ In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only ‘die for our sins’ but should also ‘taste death,’ experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body, between the time he expired on the cross and the time he was raised from the dead. The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell. It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb, reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfillment of man’s salvation, which brings peace to the whole universe.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §624)
After the mystery of Holy Thursday and the sorrow of Good Friday comes the silence of Holy Saturday. On this day the Church watches and waits. The stone has been rolled over the tomb and the guards stand sentinel against the possibility that disciples will come and steal the body of Jesus. While his human flesh lies in the sleep of death, the divine and eternal Word of God descends into hell, where he “brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (CCC, §634). “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (CCC, §632). In other words, “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (CCC, §637).
Traditionally, this dwelling of the just souls—the fathers and mothers of the faith—has been called “limbo,” from limbus patrum. The word “limbo” means “hem” or “border,” as the souls within this realm stand on the border realm of eternal life, waiting for the Messiah to come and open its gates for them. In his painting Christ in Limbo (1441–1442) Blessed Fra Angelico (1395–1455) depicts the moment in which Christ arrives in the realm of the dead, blowing the door off its hinges with his divine power, leading the souls of the just from the place of waiting to the realm of eternal glory that he has opened by his Death on the Cross.
Scholar Stephan Beissel unpacks the scene:
“Christ carries the standard of the Resurrection and Victory in his left hand, and extends his right hand to Abraham, behind whom one sees Adam, Eve, Moses, David, and the other Patriarchs. . . . Christ does not touch Satan and advances on a light cloud. He is magnificently dressed in luminous garments and surrounded by rays of glory, while two demons are seized with fear and take flight.” (See Beissel, Fra Angelico, 113)
Not only does Christ “not touch Satan,” but, as Fra Angelico depicts with a kind of joyous humor, Christ utterly squashes Satan flat beneath the door to the netherworld, thus fulfilling the prophecy God addresses to the serpent in the garden of Eden at the dawn of salvation history: “I will put enmity between you and the women, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The love of Christ poured out on the Cross has created an unstoppable force that breaks the chains of sin, shatters the door into the realm of death and cracks its very foundations, sends demons fleeing, and crushes the head of the serpent, and now he calls to the righteous who have waited patiently for his coming: “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead” (CCC, §635).
Christ has burst through the chains of death by “[giving] his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28b; see also Mark 10:45). Now he bursts through the doors of hell itself, releasing the souls of the just from their time of waiting and bringing them to the heavenly Kingdom to dwell forever in the very heart of God. We who are still on this side of death keep silent vigil at his tomb, awaiting the moment when he will “burst his three-day prison” and reveal the glory of his resurrected Body and the promise of eternal life for all who believe in him.
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