If Calvin’s Institutes may serve as an indicator, I think it’s safe to say that Holy Saturday was stripped of its grandeur during the Reformation. In book II Calvin notes that the descendit ad infernos clause was simply meant to describe or gloss Christ’s cry of dereliction upon the cross. Christ doesn’t go anywhere on Holy Saturday for Calvin; rather, the creed is attempting to show how great his sufferings were, nothing more or less.

Against the grain of Calvin, I’ve come to appreciate more Hans urs von Balthasar’s reading of Holy Saturday (though still harboring some reservations). In light of Balthasar’s meditations on the Triduum I’m left wondering: In the same manner that Easter is vacuous without Good Friday, I wonder if Easter joy might also be hampered without Holy Saturday.

According to Balthasar, the silent space between Good Friday and Easter is telling, for it bespeaks of Christ’s utter abandonment and solidarity with the dead, with all the forsaken. Like Good Friday, Holy Saturday rattles our conception of God’s infinite love and pushes our thinking to the limits of orthodoxy. Von Balthasar writes that “if Jesus has suffered on the Cross the sin of the world to very last truth of this sin-godforsakenness – then he must experience, in solidarity with the sinners who have gone to the underworld, their – ultimately hopeless – separation from God, otherwise he would not have known all the phases and conditions of what it means for man to be unredeemed yet awaiting redemption” (ET, 408). All of this is to say, “On Holy Saturday, we observe the fulfillment of the mystery of salvation: from now on, hell belongs to Christ” (Quoted in Dare we Hope, 112). Christ himself traverses the “outermost alienation” (ET, 413), and not just metaphorically. In so doing, “God himself has proven to be the Almighty who also is able to safeguard his identity in nonidentity, his being-with-himself in being lost, his life in being dead” (ET, 413).

If Holy Saturday is anything then, it is the ultimate day of solidarity with the outcast, extending to the dead, the godforsaken. Holy Saturday is the logic of the Saints; a day where we stand with those who find it unbearable that even one soul should be condemned to hell.

To quote Balthasar in full:

But there is, on Holy Saturday, the descent of the dead Jesus into hell: that is (speaking very simplistically), his solidarity in nontime with those who have been lost to God. For these people, their choice is definitive, the choice whereby they have chosen their “I” instead of God’s selfless love. Into this definitiveness (of death) the Son descends; but now he is no longer acting in any way but from the Cross is instead robbing every power and initiative by being the Purely Available One, the Obedient One, but in an obedience that has been humiliated to the point of being pure matter, the absolutely cadaver-like obedience that is incapable of any active gesture of solidarity, let alone of “preaching” to the dead. He is dead with the dead (but out of a final love).

But this is precisely how he disturbs the absolute loneliness that the sinner strives for: the sinner who wants to be “dammed” by God now rediscovers God in loneliness – but this time he rediscovers God in the absolute impotence of love. For now God has placed himself in solidarity with those who have damned themselves, entering into nontime in a way we could never anticipate. The verse of the pslam: “If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!” (Ps 139:8) thus receives a whole new meaning. And even the battle cry “God is dead” – that self-asserting diktat of the sinner who is finished with God – gains a whole new meaning that God himself has established.

Creaturely freedom is respected but is still overtaken by God at the end of the Passion and once more undergirded (“inferno profundior”, as Pope Gregory the Great put it). Only in absolute weakness does God want to give each freedom created by him the gift of a love that breaks out of very dungeon and dissolves every constriction: in solidarity, from within, with those refuse all solidarity. Mors et viat duello… (ET, 422).

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