N.B.: This was originally published on April 23, 2011. I have made some minor corrections for spelling, but otherwise it is at it appeared two years ago. I can't imagine saying more, or better, what I wrote here. Wait and watch with me, as we consider the dead Jesus in the interconnected reality of the Triune Life of God.
The vision of death by the mode of immediate experience, is the most complete punishment possible. And since the death of Christ was complete, since through his own experience he saw the death which he had freely chosen to undergo, the soul of Christ went down into the underworld where the vision of death is. For death is called "underworld", infernus, and it has been loosed from out of the deeper underworld, ex inferno inferiori. The lower or deeper underworld is where one sees death. When God raised Christ he drew him, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, from out of the lower underworld, after delivering him from the torture of that underworld, solutis doloribus inferni. That is why the prophet says, "He did not leave my soul in the underworld." Christ's suffering, the greatest one could conceive, was like that of the damned who cannot be damned any ore. That is, his suffering went to the length of infernal punishment. . . . He alone through such a death entered into glory. He wanted to experience the poena sensus like the damned in Hell for the glorifying of his Father, and so as to show that one should obey the Father even to the utmost torture. That means praising and glorifying God in every possible way for our justification - which is what Christ has done.We are in that time over which the Gospels remain silent. From the moment on Friday evening when Jesus corpse is laid in the tomb until the arrival of the women on Sunday morning there is nothing. One sentence and paragraph ends, another begins. The Sabbath lies in-between. The only hint that day contained anything of substance is given not in the Gospel, but in 1 Peter, where the author claims Jesus preached to the dead.
Nicholas of Cusa
De Civitate Dei
Which, of course, raises far more questions that such a short phrase could possibly answer.
The mystery of the Passion is boundless. On this day of Biblical silence, we are nevertheless pushed to consider the naked fact of Jesus' death. What does that mean for one who claimed solidarity with the God of Israel whom he called his Father? In a sense, reflecting upon this day only becomes possible because of Easter. Had there been no resurrection, there would be no reason to consider this day, what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls "the hiatus". Yet, there is this hiatus, this break. Jesus is dead. The silence of the witnesses is deafening in the questions it raises.
The same von Balthasar noted above has a short yet powerful meditation on the Passion, Mysterium Paschale, from whose pages the Nicholas of Cusa epigram comes. The chapter on Saturday is entitled "Going To The Dead", and in it, von Balthasar considers the 1 Peter passage as well as later doctrinal developments, the question of the development of the idea of Sheol, Gehenna, Purgatory, Limbo, Hell, within the context of the fact of Jesus being dead. His final move is to a Trinitarian consideration of the event, which is, to me, the starting point of a fuller understanding (never full; the events of these days are without full measure). From pp. 174-175:
That the Redeemer is solidary with the dead, or, better, with this death which makes of the dead, for the first time, dead human beings in all reality - this is the final consequence of the redemptive mission he has received from the Father. His being with the dead is an existence at the utmost pitch of obedience, and because the One thus obedient is the dead Christ, it constitutes the "obedience of a corpse" (the phrase is Francis of Assisi's) of a theologically unique kind. By it Christ takes the existential measure of everything that is sheerly contrary to God, og the entire object of the divine eschatological judgment, which here is grasped in that event in which it is "cast down". . . . But at the same time, this happening gives the measure of the Father's mission in all its amplitude; the "exploration" of Hell is an event of the (economic) Trinity.There is much more in this vein, but the point, I think, should be clear. Even as that moment of abandonment lingers, it bears the character of inner-Trinitarian obedience, of the furthering of the mission of the Father by the Son through the Spirit. What von Balthasar calls throughout the solidarity of the dead Christ with the dead captures the fullness of this mission, in both its immanent and economic Trinitarian forms, and what the historic doctrine of the descent to Hell and the Harrowing of Hell by the dead Christ cannot. What constitutes the character of this obedience is nothing more or less than taking in to very existence of the inner life of the Triune God that which cannot be, that which was before God created, chaos and lifelessness. Matters of Hell and Gehenna, of Purgatory and Limbo, not only cross a line where speculation rooted in misunderstanding and silence should calm our nervous spirits, but in any event continue to see the Passion as something rooted in human existence, human needs. The being solidary with the dead is part of the Divine desire to be in relationship even there, with the dead in the nothingness, the powerlessness (he quotes the Hewbrew refa'im, those who are powerless, to emphasize the utter passivity of Jesus even in death) which is their lot. Salvation is not only God's act for Creation. Considering the death of Jesus within the context of the Trinitarian life of God leads one to see the fullness of God's desire to take in to that mysterious love of the Three for one another that which cannot be a part of it. The Passion becomes, through the emptiness and silence of Holy Saturday, more clearly understood as a working out of the depth of the Three Persons for One Another in the world God created, even to that which denies creation.
If the Father must be considered as the Creator of human freedom - with all its forseeable consequences - then judgment belongs primordially to him, and thereby Hell also; and when he sends the Son into the world to save it instead of judging it, and, to equip him for this function, gives "all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22), then he must also introduce the Son made man into "Hell" (as the supreme entailment of human liberty). But the Son cannot really be introduced into Hell save as a dead man, on Holy Saturday. This introducing is needful since the dead must "hear the voice of the Son of God," and hearing that voice, "live". (John 5:15) The Son must "take in with his own eyes what in the realm of creation is imperfect, informed, chaotic" so as to make it pass over into his own domain as Redeemer. . . .
This vision of chaos by the God-man has become for us the condition of our vision of Divinity. His exploration of the ultimate depths has transformed what was a prison into a way. . . .
We are in a time of vigilance, of waiting and watching. As we wait and watch in silence, what no eye has seen nor ear heard is about to burst forth. We believe this and proclaim it as the heart of the Good News which even now rests in the silent depths of the grave. On this Holy Saturday, only because we can look back from Easter, we see just how far Jesus is willing to go, not only for us, for for the Father who loved him, and left him alone to die on the cross.