I’ve loved bridges for as long as I can remember. I think because I grew up near the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, I experienced them first as objects of great beauty and wonder rather than just functional devices that make it more efficient to get from point A to point B. Bridges are amazing and majestic. They are stable and effective. They’re also strategic. How many great stories involve destroying, defending, capturing or making a last stand on a bridge?
According to Wikipedia, more than 100,000 vehicles cross the Golden Gate Bridge every day, but to truly appreciate it both as an object of great beauty and an incredible engineering marvel, you need to take the time to walk across it in a leisurely fashion, bundled up against the bitter wind (even in the summer), to feel the gentle sway of the bridge, to listen to the seagulls and the foghorns (over the din of the traffic behind you clicking over the sections of roadway), to smell the salty sea air, to touch the powerful, enormous cables, to see the majestic towers up close and to watch the sailboats and ferries navigate their way around the sparkling waters of San Francisco Bay. It’s an intense experience you will never forget, but without taking that time, or even without knowing ahead of time that it gets mighty cold out in the middle, your experience and understanding and appreciation of the Golden Gate Bridge will be rather deficient.
I wonder if Holy Saturday is a little like this. Is Holy Saturday just a bridge between two more important days? Are we still in Good Friday mourning? Are we starting our Easter celebrations? Do we just need more time to finish our to-do lists?
Thankfully, we can look to the Roman Missal - that beautiful book with all the prayers and instructions for Masses and liturgies throughout the year. The page for Holy Saturday is almost entirely blank. Just a few brief instructions for the day. Here’s one:
“On Holy Saturday the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his Passion and Death and on his Descent into Hell, and awaiting his Resurrection.”
Descent into Hell is certainly interesting. It comes up every Sunday in the Creed, but I haven’t encountered it in a lot of places myself. Only in the last few years, I’ve come across three things that I’ve found helpful in meditating on this.
First because I’m a bit of a nerd that way, I looked at the Catechism which says that Jesus really did die on Good Friday (my students often get confused about this). There’s a lot more theology here about how God’s divine person remained with both his human body and his human soul, but the gist is that his human body remained in the tomb while his human soul descended into Hell just like all human souls did at that time when they died. Except he was also the Savior, so He was able to call forth “the just” and bring them into heaven. The Catechism goes on to explain that “The gospel was preached even to the dead.”
Second, the most beautiful description I’ve heard of what Jesus was up to is in the “Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday”. Here’s just a snippet:
“Something strange is happening - there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
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.”
The third, the traditional icon “The Harrowing of Hades” is a dramatic and colorful depiction of Jesus grabbing Adam and Eve each by a wrist and yanking them out of their tombs and into eternal life.
While pondering this icon yesterday, I was drawn to Jesus’ feet. I wondered where he planted his feet to pull Adam and Eve to himself. Then I noticed that everything else in the picture besides Jesus is off balance and the ground under him seems to be a bit of a mess - I think he’s standing on the broken doors and smashed hardware of the gates of Hell.
And then it struck me…
He is solid ground.
He is the firm foundation.
He himself became the strategic rallying point.
The stable, beautiful, majestic bridge.
The liberating way from hell into heaven.