HE DESCENDED TO HELL
[Holy Saturday Reflection]
“They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified… Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19: 40-42).
Today, there is silence in the Church. No light. No colors. No liturgy. No activity. In our faraway parish, there were just few pious women who wore black veils as they followed the Mater Dolorosa procession at 3 o’clock at dawn on Holy Saturday. It is said, they were accompanying Mary as she sadly looked for Jesus, her dead son.
If there is some sound or movement in the main church, it is just few altar servers or a choir practicing for the Easter vigil. Even the “saints” are still covered. The only single statue open at the center with one flickering candle is the crucified Christ. Our grandmothers would remind us to speak in whispers because “God is dead”.
The Apostles Creed—which can be traced to as early 340 AD and common to all Catholic and Protestant Churches—says: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.”
Is there hell? On the one hand, we can still remember Duterte saying sometime in 2018 that God “never created Hell because if He created Hell, He must be a stupid God… My God is not stupid to create man just to burn him in Hell.” On the other hand, he also said: “Prepare the worst place in hell for me.”
Of course Duterte is not a theologian. He said this just to get even with church leaders who criticized his violent policies. But indeed, the concept of hell is ambivalent. On the one hand, some deny it. On the other hand, others used it to instill fear and exact subservience.
And like “hell”, the significance of Holy Saturday is also ambivalent. It is an “empty” day. Is this the time that you can do anything because God is dead, as my mischievous friends tell us in our youth? Or does it point to something deep of our humanness that we all need to to be in touch with? Is this meaningless time or meaningful silence? Is this boring emptiness or hopeful waiting?
What does Holy Saturday mean for us?
First, Jesus “like the rest of us” waits for his Abba to raise him up, to vindicate him. Jesus did not raise himself up. There was no auto-resurrection mode for him or for anyone. Jesus waited and God raised him up from the dead, as St. Paul says (Rom. 10: 9). This is the content of the apostles' proclamation: Jesus of Nazareth who has been handed over to you, whom you crucified and killed... God has raised him" (Acts 2:24).
Second, the solemn silence of the Holy Saturday is God’s act of solidarity with those of us who are in the state of “tragic waiting” for our own resurrections which is promised but has not come yet – for justice long denied, for the healing of pain of loss, for evil people not to triumph. If Jesus has waited and his God came to raise him up, there is also hope for us in our own hopelessly tragic situations.
I remember the victims of Marcos’ Martial Law and Duterte’s War on Drugs. Many families are still waiting for the bodies of the “disappeared”, as police buried them somewhere. Waiting for justice denied, as the perpetrators are still in place or wanting to come back to power. Orphans waiting for their fathers who would never come. Widows waiting for food on their tables during the pandemic and beyond. All of us, in one way or another, are waiting in the depths of pain and silence, in the depths of anonymity and agony that has been forced upon us. The silence of Jesus in “hell” is the touch of God’s presence in this space of exile and anguish.
Third, Jesus’ descent into hell is not meant to liberate the “souls of the just” waiting for the Messiah, as the old catechism tells us. We were once told that Abraham, Moses, David, even Jesus’ father, Joseph, were in the place of the dead, waiting for the redemption that the Messiah brings. So, when Jesus “went down to hell”, he opened its gates to bring them salvation. But we have to remember, Jesus was really dead. He was not pretending to be dead. He was dead, as in dead. He did not work while being dead. That is too much work for someone who is dead. But what did his death mean?
His presence among the dead “in hell” expresses his loving identification with sinners who abandoned God. The great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthazar, a friend of Benedict XVI, writes: “Exactly in that way he disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner, who wants to be ‘damned’ apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness. God in the absolute weakness of love unfathomably in the period of non-time enters into solidarity with those damning themselves.”
Simply put, Jesus goes to “hell” with us if only to show the depth of God’s love.
Indeed, a human being can desire evil to the end of one's life. People can be so obstinate to do evil with impunity, without any sign of remorse. Think of the holocaust. Think of the Gulag. Think of the war on Ukraine. How can a human being tolerate in his or her conscience the thousands of innocent women and children hit by bombs? Think of the cruelty of tortures, killings and disappearances in Martial Law. Think of the overt violence of Tokhang done with utter impunity in front of the victim's children. As if those who pulled the trigger on the poor do not have children themselves.
“Hell” is therefore a possibility—the possibility of eternal loss—if only to show that human freedom is real, and there are real consequences to it. Hell is a possibility for the unrepentant thief and murderer who does not own up to his misdeeds. Hell therefore is a possibility, if only to answer the prayer of the helpless widow whose chick on her husband's coffin humbly begs for justice. Hell is a possibility, if only to tell us that impunity is not the last word; God's justice is.
But together with that possibility is also a stronger pull of God’s grace in history— "that the world as a whole will enter the eternal life of God”, as the great German theologian, Karl Rahner, says.
The mystery of the Holy Saturday is there to show that no matter how strong the power of human freedom is “to reject God”, it is not strong enough to prevent God from truly offering God’s love to someone who prefers to be in hell — that even in hell God's presence continues to extend a caring hand to the lost. Just in case.
Hell thus is not the last word. Love is.
Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM
Vincentian Center for Social Justice
St. John’s University – New York