What happened on Holy Saturday? Christians differ.

A trip to Hell—or not? Not all Christians focus on this Holy Saturday detour.Angels play heavenly music, as Christ uses Holy Saturday for the Harrowing of Hell in a 13th Century Flemish illumination of a sacred manuscript. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.SATURDAY, APRIL 7: It’s Holy Saturday—a day of silence, a day in between, as Christians await the Resurrection of the Son of God that is at the core of their faith. Christians traditionally are preparing for the grand feast of Easter, recovering still from the solemnity of Good Friday, while commemorating the day that Jesus’s body lay in a tomb.
(Here is Wikipedia’s overview.)

‘Harrowing of Hell’

Such matters of faith are mysterious, and are debated to this dayl Differing Christian viewpoints are everywhere we look this spring. A contemporary illustration of Jesus graces the cover of Newsweek magazine, this week, with a story about Christianity’s future. Meanwhile, USA Today focuses on a long-running Holy Saturday question, What exactly did Jesus do on Holy Saturday? The report describes traditonal Catholic perspectives on Holy Saturday: Often called “the Harrowing of Hell,” the dramatic image of Jesus breaking down the doors of Hades has proved almost irresistible to artists, from the painter Hieronymus Bosch to the poet Dante to countless Eastern Orthodox iconographers. But some Protestants say there is scant scriptural evidence for the hellish detour, and that Jesus’ own words contradict it.

Want more Catholic perspectives? Learn more from FishEaters. And: Teach children through your own family customs, with suggestions from Women for Faith and Family.

Never heard of ‘Harrowing of Hell’? This is a matter of doctrine in the Catholic church, described in the Cathechism this way: By the expression ‘He descended into Hell’, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil ‘who has the power of death’ (Hebrews 2:14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.

Are you a Dante fan? There’s a passing reference to this in Canto IV of the Inferno.

The concept, today, shows up in Lutheran and Calvinist teaching and in a related form in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The idea, while not precisely described in Christian scriptures, became quite popular in the Medieval era and showed up in many artisitc representations around churches. Both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have underlined the importance of this doctrine, but have not written extensively about it. In fact, most Americans don’t hear about it in their churches except as a brief reference in liturgies and some versions of creeds.

For most American Protestants, Holy Saturday is mainly a day for cleaning up the house and preparing Easter dinner for guests—or perhaps packing the car to head to a big family Easter celebration. Protestants don’t make much of Holy Saturday in their churches.

In Catholic churches, where this is part of the Triduum, the liturgical Holy Saturday lasts throughout the day. In the evening comes a dramatic Mass of the Easter Vigil that often begins in darkness, broken by flame. The new Paschal Candle is blessed and lit; members of the congregation slowly light the church with their own candles, which are ignited by the new Paschal Candle. The “light of the world” is rising, at last—and the Gloria is sung. Church bells peal, covered statues are unveiled and the Proclamation of Easter eventually is announced!

And for Eastern Orthodox Christians? Due to different calendars, the Easter (or Pascha) Vigil that is a huge part of the Orthodox liturgical year is still a week away.

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