A Strange and Palpable Stillness
The Bear cannot write learnedly on the part of the Apostle's Creed that says: "He descended into Hell." Nonetheless he will do his best.
The Bear experiences a strange and palpable stillness. There is something going on offstage, and he strains to understand, but before him is just an empty stage. Perhaps a single spotlight enigmatically illumines the bare boards as the hours slowly pass.
Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still, because God has fallen asleep in the flesh... and has raised up all who have ever slept since the beginning of the world. He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds, and Eve -- captive with him, he who is both God and the Son of Eve... "I am your God, who for your sake has become your son... I order you, O sleeper to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.CCC 635, quoting ancient homily for Holy Saturday.
What Is Happening Off Stage?
We have accompanied Our Savior so intently this week, and just when He has wrought our salvation, He is suddenly taken from us! It seems He has other business to which He must attend, that does not directly involve us. What mystery is this?
In Shakespeare's day, although stage effects could be impressive, they obviously could not portray the Battle of Philippi in the play Julius Caesar. The mighty clash between Brutus and Cassius on one side, and Octavian on the other actually happens between two acts. A minor character, Cassius' slave, Pindarus, describes the climactic offstage moment to Cassius in a mere five lines. Pindarus reports defeat, and Cassius orders Pindarus to kill him.
However, Pindarus was wrong. Where he saw defeat was actually victory. The apparent defeat of the Cross, was actually Christ's moment of victory. "It is finished," is not surrender, but a proclamation by the victorious King.
The question of Holy Saturday is, "what is happening between the crucifixion and the resurrection?" or, in other words, "what is going on offstage?" It turns out to be another battle, or not so much a battle as a raid. Jesus indeed must go to the abode of the dead, so it might be said that he was truly dead. To go on, let us look at an Orthodox icon.
The Icon of the Resurrection and the Raid on Hell
|Orthodox Icon of the Resurrection actually|
depicts Christ's descent into Hell.
First, note the absence of flames and imps. This Hell is not the Hell of the damned. This is the Limbus Patrum, or Bosom of Abraham, where the souls of the righteous Old Testament people slept until this very moment.
The figure of Christ is central. He is surrounded by a mandorla (Italian, "almond"), a common element in sacred art. It is formed by the overlap of two circles, depicting almost a portal beyond time and space. Notice how the mandorla gets darker as it approaches Christ. The light of Christ is represented by darkness, for the closer one approaches to the truth, the less use is one's reason, or at least so the Orthodox have it in their apophatic theology.
Look at the bottom. "But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house" (Mark 3:27 RSV) The devil, or "strong man," is beaten, and bound by Christ.
Note the doors, broken and now forming a cross. The gates of Hell could not prevail against Our Lord.
Dramatically, Christ extends his hands toward Adam and Eve, who rise from their coffins. Other saints, including John the Baptist and Abraham, represent the many saints of Old Testament times, known to us, and unknown, who are awakened and freed.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the grave of Adam is beneath the site of Christ's crucifixion. The "Old Adam," our father, through disobedience bequeathed us curses and death. The "New Adam," Christ, through obedience bestows freedom and salvation. The rescue of Adam means we are no longer hopeless and doomed to death. With him, we are saved from death by Jesus Christ.
The Bear has given himself more than five lines as he walks to the hilltop to see for himself the offstage action. "The battle is won! Hell is plundered! Our parents are rescued! The children of Adam are in Christ's wounded hands!"