“Descended into Hell”

This is the holiest time in the Christian liturgical calendar. This past week is known as “Holy Week,” with emphasis on the triduum or three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. The Easter celebration extends beyond the vigil through Easter Sunday with different but related readings throughout the day. If you’re not used to this cycle or the Christian holy days, it might be easier to think of this week as corresponding to the dying, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The fifth article of the Apostles’ Creed states that Christ “descended into hell and on the third day He rose again from the dead.” Many parishes recite this creed every Sunday, although at my parish we use the Nicene Creed. They differ in wording and length with one major difference being Christ’s descent into hell. The older Nicene Creed doesn’t mention it. However, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 631-35), after his crucifixion Christ descended into the place of shadows or Sheol (Hades in Greek) to redeem those who, like Lazarus, rested in “Abraham’s bosom” but were “deprived of the vision of God.” He set free the “imprisoned” (632). Dante included Virgil and other “virtuous pagans” in this “harrowing of Hades” since they did not have an opportunity to know Christ in their lifetimes.

Holy Saturday marks the time when this occurred, between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection three days later on Easter Sunday. It pauses the ritual drama, the pre-Conciliar missal of 1962 (editio typica) calling it “a day of deepest mourning, a day which the Church spends at our Lord’s sepulchre, meditating on His Sacred Passion and Death” (p. 592). It adds “[t]here is no Mass; the sacred altar is bare.” As Christ descends into Sheol, breaking the chains of those who even in death can hear the good news of salvation, the rest of us are left graveside, as it were, mourning.

I have been thinking about this lately and decided that we don’t mourn enough anymore, at least not in the West. A lot has been written about our therapeutic culture and how we have a thousand ways to deal with grief and loss, usually with therapy and medication, the primary purpose of which is to get the grieving person back on their feet. Work hard, play hard, recover hard. You hear that a lot. That is, you work at recovery the same way you work at any problem to be solved.

But what if grief or loss isn’t a problem to be solved but something requiring mourning? By mourning I mean a practice similar to sitting graveside and waiting, not forcing things. Instead of moving from grief to a normal life again, the grieving person would enter a hiatus, an interim period that allows for nothing to happen outwardly but the breaking of chains inwardly. Why not? The missal reminds us that “life and grace flow to us from the death of our Lord.”

That may sound unrealistic, and it’s not as if it isn’t part of therapeutic protocol already. I know it’s done in most spiritual direction. But what Holy Saturday offers that is often missing from the usual ways of treating grief is the ritual dimension of waiting. Fasting and prayer during the day (and all through Lent) lead to the vigil on Saturday night. The waiting is ritualistic, which makes it different from activity or the work of recovery.

Personally, I like the idea of an interim state between grief and normalcy. After all, nothing goes back to normal if by normal we mean the way things were before. That’s the point of the ritual, which has the ability to transform us. “I am making something new. Do you not see it?” asks the Lord (Isa 43:19). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17).

I like the idea of mourning, because it sits in liminality, neither here nor there but somewhere in between, which, from what I can tell of life, runs closer to truth than any permanent state. Maybe that’s just me. That’s also why I like Purgatory, which, according to tradition, is one of the states of Sheol that Jesus visited. It, too, is not a permanent condition. In fact, those confined to it are already saved. They just need more time. That’s my kind of afterlife.

“O Filii et Filiae,” Frati Francescani d’Immacolata (July 12, 2015).

Image credits: feature Priscilla Du Preez; chains R. Martinez; shadows Marco Bianchetti. Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. The mourning period. Greatly discounted, per your fine article, in modern society. There is no quick way to resolve what amounts to irreplaceable loss, whether it be human, canine, confidence, love, capability, or anything else which defines us as human. To take time with it, especially as we age, brings resolution much more quickly than any ten pack of therapy sessions with a grief counselor. Acceptance of it in your life, temporary though it genuinely is, will allow you the time acceptance and eventual relief.

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