The Apostles Creed, that staple of my early prayer life, states that Jesus “descended into hell.” Naturally (!) I had to ask every adult I knew about this nugget of the faith. The best I can recall is that everyone, from Monsignor Schreckenberger, R.I.P., to the school janitor, had a different answer. Two decades later I went to grad school and even enrolled in an elective on “eschatology,” where I was tossed a most intriguing oral question in a final exam, “Discuss the eschatological outlook of the first witnesses of the empty tomb on Easter.” To quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I got a commendation for original thinking, a vital skill when you don’t really know the answer.
So here we are years later, and given that this is “Sacramental Saturday,” I thought it appropriate to visit the question again, with the knowledge that Jesus is the “perfect sacrament,” the full sign and symbol of his heavenly Father. There is historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (this data is recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus), and that at some point in time afterward his followers reported seeing Jesus alive. Liturgically speaking, Holy Saturday is the observance of the “in between;” if you pray the Liturgy of the Hours of Holy Saturday, the unique mood of this time is captured remarkably well.
The answer to the question of Jesus’ status on Holy Saturday is simple and yet quite complex. The Gospels, the Christological Councils of the Church, and the Nicene Creed are unanimous that Jesus died on the cross. This is a foundational pillar of our belief. But after the moment of his death, what next? Again, internal Gospel evidence points to his interment in a guarded and sealed tomb. And yet, in Luke’s account of the Passion, the “good thief” asks Jesus to remember him when “you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies that “this day you will be with me in paradise.” So, if you held a gun to my head, my personal belief is that at the moment of his death Jesus returned to the glory that was rightfully his from the beginning of time, soon to be followed by the luckiest career thief who ever lived. There is one minor hitch in my thinking—the Gospel of John, where on Easter Sunday morning Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to clutch him, “for I have not yet ascended to my father.” Hmmm.
A factor to consider is how Jews of Jesus’ time would have thought about life after death. Truth be told, the general consensus of Jewish believer held that death was death, period. The idea of body and soul was a Greek introduction that conservative Judaism would not have embraced. Recall that Martha was extremely distraught when Jesus arrived after the death of her brother Lazarus (John 11: 20-27), even in the then radical knowledge that Lazarus would rise on the last day. Martha was torn between a far distant future and the reality of her brother now several days decomposed in his tomb. The arbiters of Jewish belief, the Sadducees, attempted to put Jesus to scorn with their hypothetical case of a woman who married seven brothers—whose wife would she be in a grand resurrection at the end of time? This is a narrative of scorn and derision about life after death.
Consequently, the “Holy Saturday” followers of Jesus had nothing to cling to but Jesus’ promise. There were no back door escape routes such as separation of the soul or purgatorial waiting room. It is true that some trace of afterlife is mentioned in isolated portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically a place referred to as Sheol (later, Hades) where all humans were cast indiscriminately and apparently without personality. Sheol was not a major consideration in Jewish theology, but oddly, the concept of such a place would undergo a Christian revival of sorts centuries later.
In the Christian era, when the Church had more fully defined the saving power of Christ, there was concern for the great elders of the Judeo-Christian tradition who had died prior to the saving crucifixion of Jesus. This body would include all of the Old Testament major figures, Adam, Abraham, Moses, and even John the Baptist. There is a remarkable surviving sermon from the Christian era (possibly 600 A.D.?) that describes Jesus making a solemn visit to the underworld. (This sermon, by the way, is the second reading of Holy Saturday’s Office of Readings.) After his death on the cross Jesus undertakes a mission of mercy, in his own name and in the name of his Father, to seek out and reconcile Adam and Eve. They meet, and in a formula borrowed from the Christian Mass, exchange greetings. Jesus takes Adam by the hand and says, “Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you life.” Jesus goes on to describe his sufferings on their behalf, and then, recalling that they had been expelled from the garden of paradise, invites them to the eternal paradise. The text suggests, at least, that Jesus takes all the just with him into heaven.
The very existence of such a sermon suggests that Christians, in ways we do not fully understand today, intuited the significance of Holy Saturday and the meaning of the death of Christ. The phrase “descent into hell” becomes the final stone in the edifice of the Incarnation. Jesus assumed the entire human experience, which included real death and solidarity with the entire human race. We need at least one day to digest this aspect of the Redemptive act, and Holy Saturday is that day.
Looking at our original question, I guess the best we can say—and it is a lot---is that Jesus spent Holy Saturday just as he spent Good Friday and Easter Sunday: as the perfect sign of his Father, exuding love and redemption from the right hand of the Father, from the dusky mists of Sheol, from a tomb on the edge of Jerusalem—all of the above.
I'm writing from the road today, coordinating a day long workshop on the Creed to an ensemble of parish catechists, ministers,and Catholic school teachers. The parish is about an hour from my home, but this is one of our relatively newer parishes, and this is my first visit. The course today in our diocesan catalogue, #102, Is an overview of beliefs, a prerequisite for the next 25 courses in our program at this time. I see that I will be explaining the mystery of the Trinity between 11:30 and 11:45 AM.
Needless to say, we won't be starting the sacrament series today. I truly regret that, but next week, schedule-wise, the situation is looking brighter. If sacraments are of particular interest, I might suggest the acquisition of Joseph Martos' Doors to the Sacred. This work has been republished several times, most recently in 2014. Be sure to buy the 2014 edition if you are interested. This book reads very well and is an excellent addition to your working library.
I regret that the first installment of our discussion of sacraments was not quite ready to go to press today. However, in its place I am posting my Amazon.com review of Vatican Council II by Xavier Rynne. Many of you will remember this book for its insights during the study of Vatican II. This week I finally had the opportunity to write the review and post it with Amazon. If you are looking for a book to discover both the ideas and the dynamics of the Council, you could do much worse than Rynne's book. Here is the review as it appears on the book's Amazon page:
The best visual image of this work is a picture of Xavier Rynne collecting all of the major characters, issues, places and documents into a closet much too small for the purpose. Then we, the readers, come along years later, open the door, and find ourselves in an avalanche of Cardinal Ottaviani, Gaudium et Spes, the Bar Jonah Coffee Shop, scholastic theology, non placets, Cardinal Frings, modernism, Protestant observers, and everything else that made the Council Vatican II (1962-1965) a truly human experience of the Church.
In the present time there are a number of fine analytical works on Vatican II written to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Council. I call particular attention to Massimo Faggioli’s impressive writings over the past decade. Xavier Rynne’s work was first published in 1968, just three years after the Council’s completion, when the question of “what happened?” was just as common as “what happens next?”
The identity of Xavier Rynne is itself intriguing. Rynne was, in actually, the Redemptorist moral theologian Father Francis X. Murphy, a professor in Rome and very familiar with “Vatican ways.” Murphy, a peritus or theological expert for the Council, intuited that there would be great world-wide interest in the Council and that the Roman Curia would do all in its power to embargo the substance of debate from the media. Judging that the Council belonged to the entire Church, Murphy contracted with the New Yorker magazine for regular accounts of the proceedings with analyses of personalities, strategies, and internal dynamics. In this 1990 edition, Father Murphy describes his “close calls” with the Curia as well as the good efforts many Council fathers to cover his back.
Murphy/Rynne would go on to write four volumes on the Council, one for each session. This book is a compilation of all four sessions. It is not exactly a seamless garment, in content or literary style, reading more like a classy summary of countless pads of thoughtful and at times witty handwritten notes. In his defense, Vatican II was in no way a seamless event, either, with debates interrupted by submissions of earlier documents introduced for second review and peculiar Curial floor managing to produce home court outcomes.
Make no mistake, Vatican II was a serious business. It was precisely for this reason that Rynne labored at some considerable risk to make its deliberations public. The Council was summoned by Pope John XXIII in 1959 as a response to the sins of the twentieth century: two world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic arms race. (The Cuban missile crisis erupted in the very early days of the Council.) A number of the Church’s bishops came to the Council to make the Church a more credible and effective agent of the good of mankind, with an eye toward ecumenical union in that cause. Other bishops came to Rome to strengthen the Church that they knew—the power of the papacy, the supremacy of the Catholic Church as the guarantor of truth in a very troubled age. And, in truth, a number of bishops were simply in over their heads. Rynne treats bishops of all persuasions with respect of conscience, though he does not always suffer fools gladly nor does he hide the duplicity and self-interests of a deeply entrenched Church bureaucracy.
Some reviewers on Amazon have accused this work of portraying a “liberal fantasy” of the Council. One Amazon reviewer describes the narrative as “the Curia wear the black hats; people with German and French accents wear the white hats.” Rynne is indeed critical of the Curia—the papal/Vatican bureaucracy—whom he accuses of manipulating the proceedings to maintain power and place next to the pope, or at times in opposition to the pope. Here is where fifty years has served the author; no one has produced a credible, peer-reviewed text to refute Rynne’s essential construction of the dynamics, and the memoirs of participants over the years have not deviated greatly from the author’s description of the Council dynamic.
Rynne’s sense of humor is what keeps this account from drifting into discouragement over recurring Council bouts of timidity and Curial obstructionism. For all the gravity of the Council, the author never succumbs to dark apocalyptic. He is certainly disappointed to see the subtle strains of anti-Semitism among some speakers and documents, for example, but perhaps for himself as well as his readers he reiterates that while at times resembling the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, the Council as a whole was indeed putting the Church in a much healthier position. When times are glum, he tells us about the two Curial officers who call a taxi and ask to be taken to the Council. The cabbie proceeds north on the road to Trent.
An interesting comparison of Rynne’s eyewitness account and impression can be made with another first person witness, that of Hans Kung in his “My Struggle for Freedom.” Kung, more intense than Rynne and probably a much better historian of the conciliar process, worried in his own books that councils have been known to fail in the past, and Kung realized the potential of success and the seriousness of failure more than Rynne. But it is equally clear that Rynne has more faith in the wisdom of a number of Church fathers who distinguished themselves over the four-year haul, coming to appreciate Cardinal Bea and his passion for a new ecumenism, as well as Cardinals Leger, Alfrink, Suenens, Frieg, and the Americans Ritter and Meyer. He admires John XXIII but was perplexed by Paul VI and portrays him in a “Hamlet” sort of way.
While a student of theology and Church history will treasure the accounts here, any interested reader will soon decipher both the theology and the politics of the narrative. Again, keep in mind that this account dates back to the event itself—and today’s reader will be in much better position to assess contemporary assessments of the Council.