Everyone knows the meaning of Good Friday: it’s the day when we remember that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. The same is true of Easter Sunday, when everyone knows we celebrate that he rose from the dead in triumph over death. But what about Holy Saturday?
Though it may have been a day of waiting for his disciples, Jesus was engaged in some of the most dramatic and important work of his messianic mission – and it took him to the depths of hell.
Wait, what? Jesus went to hell?
To properly understand what is going on here, there are two things you need to know:
First, when most people hear the word “hell,” they think of the hell of the damned, the place of eternal punishment for people who do not die in Christ. However, the term “hell” can sometimes have a broader meaning of “realm of the dead” for those who are not experiencing the vision of God.
This broader meaning certainly includes the hell of the damned, but can also include other places. For example, purgatory is a part of the broader realm of the dead but is separate from the hell of the damned.
Second, before the coming of Christ, there was at least one other part of the realm of the dead that no longer exists today, a placed called “the limbo of the patriarchs.” If, before Christ, a person died in friendship with God, they wouldn’t go to the hell of the damned to be punished, but they also couldn’t go to heaven because Christ had not yet made that possible. Instead, they went to a part of the realm of the dead without the punishments of the damned.
It is to the people of this place that Christ visited when he “descended into hell.” As the Catechism explains: “Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.” (CCC 633)
So, after dying on the cross, Christ descended to the realm of the dead to proclaim to them that he had won their salvation and to lead them as the first entrants into heaven. Traditionally, this has included people like Adam and Eve, St. John the Baptist, and his foster-father Joseph.
This vitally important, but often forgotten, part of Christ’s mission is described most beautifully in an ancient sermon for Holy Saturday:
“He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.
“The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him, Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’
“He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light! I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead!'”
You can read the full text of the amazing sermon here.
So don’t let Holy Saturday just be the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Rather, contemplate Christ’s dramatic rescue mission in the realm of the dead, and praise God!