Friday, 22 September 2017

Holy Saturday: the logic of freedom

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1864 words, 10 min read

A highlight of the Easter Triduum has for me always been Holy Saturday, when the tabernacle’s emptiness, the stripped altar and the absence of the Eucharist are all stark reminders of what a world without God’s incarnation as a fellow human would be like. It is, for me, a day for being particularly close to atheists and agnostics and for reflecting on the gift of Jesus’ friendship, whose enormity is heightened by its apparent absence.

I have, for some years now, had a feeling that there is much more to Holy Saturday than I am aware of, that Jesus’ participation in death is saying more than I am hearing. Against this background, I have come across Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter”, whose 4th chapter is dedicated to Holy Saturday, and I would here like to give you a sense of the beautiful line of thought he sets out there.

Von Balthasar starts by tracing the origins of the idea of Jesus’ participation in death to the New Testament and argues for this being a consequence of redemption’s scope extending beyond the living. Jesus’ death here is a “being with” a “solidarity” with death as a human condition:
“‘[G]oing to the dead’, an expression justified, in our opinion, by I Peter 3, 19: ‘he went, poreutheis, and preached to the spirits in prison’—preached, that is, the ‘good news’ as I Peter 4, 6 adds by way of a self-evident clarification. […]

There is no difficulty about understanding this ‘going to the souls in prison’ as, first and foremost, a ‘being with’, and the ‘preaching’ in the same primary fashion as the publication of the ‘redemption’, actively suffered, and brought about by the Cross of the living Jesus—and not as a new activity, distinct from the first. For then the solidarity with the condition of the dead would be the prior condition for the work of redemption, whose effects would be deployed and exercised in the ‘realm’ of the dead, though that work itself would remain fundamentally finished (consummatum est!) on the Cross. In this sense the actively formulated term ‘preaching’ (I Peter 3, 19; in 4, 6 it is passive, evēngelisthē) should be conceived as the efficacious outworking in the world beyond of what was accomplished in the temporality of history.”
More important even than his descent and the being with the departed, is Jesus’ ascent from the dead, as a paving of the way for the resurrection of all:
“It is not the going to the dead which is important here—that is taken for granted, and identified, simply, with what it is to be genuinely dead—but rather the return from that bourn. God has not ‘left’ (or ‘abandoned’) Jesus ‘in Hades’ where he tarried; he has not let his Holy One see corruption. The accent is placed on the whence—the phrase ek nekrōn occurs some fifty times in the New Testament—a whence which implies a point of departure, namely, being with the dead. Death here is characterised by ‘pangs’, by ‘pains’ (?dines), and by its lust to seize and hold (krateisthai): but God is stronger than death. The only thing that matters is the facticity of the ‘being’ of the one who is dead in ‘death’ or—for this amounts to the same thing—in Hades, whose character is (objectively) referred to by the term ‘pains’. It is from thence that Jesus is ‘awoken’. […]

[I]n the Cross the power of Hell is already broken (down), the locked door of the grave is already burst open, yet Christ’s own laying in the tomb and his ‘being with the dead’ is still necessary, so that, on Easter Day, the common resurrection ek tōn nekrōn—with ‘Christ the first-fruits’—can follow.”
Von Balthasar then turns to the motivation for Jesus’ descent and again ascribes it to solidarity with the “unredeemed dead”, relying on St. Augustine who insists that Christ’s descent extended not only to the as-yet-unredeemed, but redemption-worthy, but also to those considered unworthy:
“The fact of being with the unredeemed dead, in the Sheol of the Old Testament, signifies a solidarity in whose absence the condition of standing for sinful man before God would not be complete. This is why Sheol must be understood in the classic Old Testament sense […]

Augustine distinguishes between a lower infernum (where the ‘rich man’ lives) and a higher (where Lazarus dwells, in the bosom of Abraham). The two are separated by a chaos magnum, yet both belong equally to Hades. That Christ descended even to the lower infernum, in order to ‘deliver from their sufferings tortured souls, that is, sinners’ (salvos facere a doloribus) Augustine regards as certain (non dubito). The grace of Christ redeemed all those who tarried there: adhuc requiro1. […]

This ultimate solidarity is the final point and the goal of that first ‘descent’, so clearly described in the Scriptures, into a ‘lower world’.
Looking at what the Early Fathers of the Church have written about Holy Saturday, von Balthasar presents the descent into hell as a matter of logical necessity, following from the incarnation. To become fully human, Christ had to participate in death too. Without this, his incarnation would have been incomplete, as would his redemptive action:
“And so, in order to assume the entire penalty imposed upon sinners, Christ willed not only to die, but to go down, in his soul, ad infernum. As early as the Fathers of the second century, this act of sharing constituted the term and aim of the Incarnation. The ‘terrors of death’ into which Jesus himself falls are only dispelled when the Father raises him again. According to Tertullian, the Son of God adapted himself to the whole law of human death: Huic quoque legi satisfecit, forma humanae mortis apud inferos functus2. The same affirmation is found in Irenaeus: Dominus legem mortuorum servavit, ut fieret primogenitus a mortuis.3 He insists on his own grounding principle, namely, that only what has been endured is healed and saved. Since above all this is a matter of penetrating into the realm of the inferi, so for Ambrosiaster in the Quaestiones ex Novo Testamento, Christ had to die so as to be capable of this step. Christ willed to be like us, says Andrew of Crete, in ‘walking amidst the shadows of death, in that place where souls had been bound with chains unbreakable’. All that only expresses the law of human death, thought through to its logical conclusion.”
Von Balthasar then draws our attention to a seemingly paradoxical aspect of Christ’s being among the dead - i.e., that is was a “solitary [being] with others” that did not come with a subjective experience:
“To the extent that the experience of death was objectively capable of containing an interior victory and thus a triumph over hostile powers, to that extent it was in no way necessary that this triumph be subjectively experienced. For precisely that would have abolished the law of solidarity. Let it not be forgotten: among the dead, there is no living communication. Here solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.”
A further aspect of Christ’s being with the dead is that it is both an act of ultimate obedience and an act of the Trinity, where the self-noughting of its persons is enacted here in creation. This is also reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s concept of God taking into himself the gap that may otherwise be between Him and humanity:
“His being with the dead is an existence at the utmost pitch of obedience, and because the One thus obedient is the dead Christ, it constitutes the ‘obedience of a corpse’ (the phrase is Francis of Assisi’s)4 of a theologically unique kind. By it Christ takes the existential measure of everything that is sheerly contrary to God, of the entire object of the divine eschatological judgment, which here is grasped in that event in which it is ‘cast down’ (hormēmati blēthēsetai, Apocalypse 18, 21; John 12, 31; Matthew 22, 13). But at the same time, this happening gives the measure of the Father’s mission in all its amplitude: the ‘exploration’ of Hell is an event of the (economic) Trinity.”
Finally, von Balthasar brings his line of thought to its pinnacle, by presenting Jesus’ being among the dead as a logical consequence of his having received the power to judge from the Father and from Hell being the “supreme entailment of human liberty”. Without participating in it, and to do so as a human entails death, the transformation he brought about by his resurrection would have been incomplete.
“If the Father must be considered as the Creator of human freedom—with all its foreseeable consequences—then judgment belongs primordially to him, and thereby Hell also; and when he sends the Son into the world to save it instead of judging it, and, to equip him for this function, gives ‘all judgment to the Son’ (John 5, 22), then he must also introduce the Son made man into ‘Hell’ (as the supreme entailment of human liberty). But the Son cannot really be introduced into Hell save as a dead man, on Holy Saturday. This introducing is needful since the dead must ‘hear the voice of the Son of God’, and hearing that voice, ‘live’ (John 5, 15). The Son must ‘take in with his own eyes what in the realm of creation is imperfect, unformed, chaotic’ so as to make it pass over into his own domain as the Redeemer.”
To my mind, von Balthasar presents a beautiful insight into the events of Holy Saturday, whose coverage in Scripture is scant, by returning to a close reading of those passages, by understanding what the Early Church and the saints have written about it and by connecting it with the drama of salvation, which entails a transformation of creation as a whole. Only by being with the dead could Christ’s incarnation be complete and his redeeming power extend to the full scale of the consequences of human freedom.



1 “I yet enquire.”
2 “He also satisfied this law, enduring the form of human death in Hell.” De Anima, Chapter LIV.
3 “The Lord observed the law of the dead, that he would be the first-born from the dead.”
4 This is a reference to the following passage from St. Francis’ The Mirror of Perfection:
““Tell us, Father, what is perfect obedience?” To which he answered, speaking of true and perfect obedience under the figure of a corpse, “ Take a dead body and place it anywhere you please, it will not murmur at being moved, it will not change its position or cry out if you let it go. If you seat it on a throne it will not look up but down, and to clothe it in purple but makes it more pale. This is the type of perfect obedience, that asks not why he is moved, minds not where he is placed, nor insists upon being sent elsewhere. If he be promoted to office he still keeps humble, and the more he is honoured the more he counts himself unworthy.”