Tag Archives: Holy Saturday

Holy Week in Art: Holy Saturday—Fra Angelico’s “Christ in Limbo”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Christ in Limbo (ca. 1450) Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Christ in Limbo (ca. 1450)
Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

“‘By the grace of God’ Jesus tasted death ‘for everyone.’
In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only
‘die for our sins’ but should also ‘taste death,’
experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body,
between the time he expired on the cross
and the time he was raised from the dead.
The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell.
It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb,
reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfillment of man’s salvation,
which brings peace to the whole universe.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, §624, citing Heb 2:9 and 1 Cor 15:3)

After the mystery of Holy Thursday and the sorrow of Good Friday comes the silence of Holy Saturday. On this day the Church watches. She waits. The stone has been rolled over the entrance of the tomb and the guards stand sentinel against the possibility that disciples will come and steal the body of Jesus. Yet while His human flesh lies in the sleep of death, His soul sleeps not: the divine and eternal Word of God descends into hell, where he “brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (CCC, §634). “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (§632). In other words, “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” (§637).

At various points in Christian history, this dwelling of the just souls—our fathers and mothers in faith—has been called “limbo,” from limbus patrum. The word “limbo” means “hem” or “border,” as the souls within this realm stand on the border of the realm of eternal life, waiting for the Messiah to come and open its gates for them. In his painting “Christ in Limbo,” Blessed Fra Angelico depicts the moment in which Christ arrives in the realm of the dead, literally blowing the door off its hinges with His divine power. The souls of the just stand ready to greet Him, the long-awaited One, and now they are prepared to accompany the King of kings to the realm of endless day that He has opened forever by His Death on the Cross.

The Souls of the Just: (R-L) Abraham, David, Eve, Adam, Moses

The Souls of the Just:
(L-R) Moses, Adam, Eve, David, Abraham

Fra Angelico scholar Stephan Beissel ably unpacks this scene: “Christ carries the standard of the Resurrection and Victory in his left hand, and extends his right hand to Abraham, behind whom one sees Adam, Eve, Moses, David, and the other Patriarchs. … Christ does not touch Satan and advances on a light cloud. He is magnificently dressed in luminous garments and surrounded by rays of glory, while two demons are seized with fear and take flight.”[1]

Not only does Christ “not touch Satan,” but, as Fra Angelico depicts with even a slight shade of joyous humor, Limbo-Devil under doorChrist utterly squashes Satan beneath the door to the netherworld, recalling the words of the prophecy God addressed to the serpent in the garden of Eden at the dawn of salvation history: “I will put enmity between you and the women, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). The love of Christ poured out on the Cross has created an unstoppable force that breaks the chains of sin, shatters the door of the realm of death and cracks its very foundations, sends demons fleeing, and crushes the head of the serpent; and now he calls to the souls of the just, who have waited patiently for His coming: “‘I am your God, who for your sake have 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, citing an ancient homily for Holy Saturday).

Limbo-Christ detailChrist has burst through the chains of death by “[giving] His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28b; see also Mk 10:45); now He bursts through the doors of hell, releasing the souls of the just from their time of waiting and bringing them to the heavenly Kingdom where they will dwell forever in the very heart of God. We who are still on this side of death keep silent vigil at His tomb, awaiting the moment when He will “burst His three-day prison” and reveal the glory of His resurrected Body and the promise of eternal life for all who believe in Him.


[1] Stephan Beissel, Fra Angelico (Parkstone Press, 2007), 113.

TimOMalleyChurchLife

Holy Saturday: The Cosmic Expansion of Love

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Having a newborn around the house expands your capacity for love.  Not “love” understood as the welling up of feeling that inevitably occurs when you look into the eyes of your infant son, and he smiles with the recognition that indeed he knows you, delights in your presence.   Such love is easy.   Rather, having a newborn means learning to love waking up at 3:00 AM and changing his diaper, grabbing a bottle before he begins to express his newly discovered capacity for anger.   Having a newborn means learning to love coaxing your infant son to sleep, a state he begins to fight when he realizes how utterly wonderful the world is.   Having a newborn means learning to love re-orienting every facet of your life toward care and concern for this creature.   You discover, as you move more deeply into parenting, an expanding capacity for this sort of love.  It’s not easy–precisely, because it involves the abnegation of your will, of your hierarchy of order for the love of another.   And as you practice this gift of self, this gift of love–you find yourself becoming more open to the way that this love entirely re-writes your narrative.BabyTommy  You find the patience and humility practiced with your infant son begins to seep over into every relationship, into your prayer life.  Such love is cosmic in scope.

Thus far in the Triduum, we have been wooed through the dramatic love of the Father poured out as his Son bent over to wash the feet of his disciples in love, prayed through the evening in Gethsemene in love, underwent his Passion in love, and died in love.  And now, on Holy Saturday, there is silence.  Not the silence of an intermission but the silence in a symphony that is itself part of the piece, the pause in a monologue that “speaks” more powerfully than the actor’s words.   Tradition proclaims that on this day, Christ descends into hell, loosens the chains of death that imprisoned Adam and Eve, all the patriarchs and matriarchs, who were awaiting this moment.  The love of Christ manifested on the cross, that love which God is, becomes cosmic in scope.

Descent into Hell

And here we are–the disciples awaiting the resurrection, looking forward to gathering together in our darkened churches this evening, encountering the risen Christ in the sacramenta of the Great Vigil.

But what should we do as we wait?   Dear friends, it is naive for us to wait around, pretending that Christ has not already risen.   The history of the world has already been renewed, love has descended into the bitter darkness of death, and the process of redemption is underway.   But is this process under way for me?   Has the cosmic expansion of love already occurring in creation touched my heart?

As a theologian, I tend to be comfortable in devoting my energy to contemplating the broad idea of what it means that the Son, born from the Father before all ages, became flesh and dwelt among us.   That he loved us to the end, that he reversed the process of FrescoCrosssin and death, that he revealed to us what it means precisely to “think” and “speak” about God in the first place.   I have a harder time (perhaps, it’s my Irish Catholic self) with letting this cosmic process of love expand my own heart.   If having a newborn around the house renews one’s capacity to love, then knowing that the Creator of the world (who incidentally became an infant) offered himself upon the Cross as an act of love should entirely reconfigure my narrative relative to what it means to love in the first place.

Indeed, Christianity recognizes that Christ’s death and resurrection is cosmic in scope, a renewal of all creation.   But, this theological statement means little if this cosmic gift of divine love does not become incarnate in individual hearts.  The silence of Holy Saturday is an invitation to let this love become flesh in us hic et nunc, here and now.   If on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the depths of the love of the Bridegroom has been revealed to us, on Holy Saturday, we as the Bride now gaze back at our entire individual histories in light of this gift of love.  And we will certainly not see the perfection of this love in our lives.

In fact, the longer we participate in the Christian life, the more that we’ll discovery the tendency to “de-cosmicize” the love of Christ.   We fail to notice that in our individual lives we have let jealousy toward a co-worker, annoyance at a specific parishioner, hatred of humanity cloud our heart.   We have fallen victim to isolating this love of God to one facet of our lives alone, to re-writing the narrative of Christianity so that it becomes more comfortable, less disruptive of my entire identity, a series of ideas that leads me to CosmicChristignore the poor and forgotten.  We have lied to ourselves, failed to notice that each of our actions (insofar as it is knit into the cosmic love of God) is not simply an individual sin, a minor transgression, but a yielding of my narrative over to death and sin rather than the love of God.

The silence of Holy Saturday provides an opportunity for us to re-examine our lives before we celebrate fully the Resurrection of the Lord.   Such re-examination is not a matter of fear or self-hatred.   After all, during the previous two days, we have come to know the depths of divine love, that human action (no matter how dark) cannot conquer the love of God.   Rather, it’s simply akin to re-tuning an instrument that has become flat or sharp and using as our model the harmonious music of divine love.

In this way, the cosmic expansion of divine love begun when the Savior of the world gave up his spirit on Good Friday continues as this love descends into our individual souls.   For Christ does not simply descend into the hell of the patriarchs and matriarchs, into a now long forgotten Sheol.  Instead, he descends into the hell of my soul, the hell of my own hatred, of the love that I refuse to give.   And if a newborn can teach me the art of patience, of self-gift, of delighting even in the most disgusting of tasks, then the God-man can form me more perfectly in the logic of love that was the original destiny of creation.  After all, isn’t this what the resurrection about in the first place–the very transfiguration of the cosmos, starting one disciple at a time, through divine love?

Triduum Mystagogy: A Primer

Dear friends,

As we approach Easter this year, we have an array of postings during this sacred season from our authors.  We also wanted to once again make available for our new and returning readers a series of reflections on the Triduum.  In the last year, I have used these postings in a variety of contexts, including R.C.I.A. retreats and theology classes on the Paschal Mystery.  They have proved fruitful.  Happy Holy Week.

Holy Thursday

The Gloria and the Triduum

Our Eucharistic Beginnings

The Footwashing as Eucharistic Act

The Eucharist and the Agony in the Garden

Good Friday

The Silence of the Cross

The Priesthood of the Suffering Servant:  The Vulnerability of Love

Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross

Adoring the Tree of Life, Eating Its Fruits

Holy Saturday

A Liturgical Celebration of Possibility:  The Cosmic History of Christ’s Descent Into Hell

Easter Vigil

The Mystagogical Pedagogy of the Easter Vigil

Hearts Ablaze:  The Sacramental Proclamation of the Scriptures

The Exciting Strangeness of Holy Saturday

Kara O’Malley

Director of Christian Formation, St. Joseph Parish, South Bend, IN

Echo 1 Graduate

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“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.”

This is a passage from a beautiful ancient homily, included each Holy Saturday in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday.  I share it with you because I think it perfectly hits on the exciting strangeness of this day.  In some ways, it feels as though we are those disaster movie survivors—you know, the ones who emerge from basements and storm shelters amidst an empty and changed world with bemused looks on their faces, just as a ray of dawn streaks across the horizon.

Today, we emerge from the chaos and the tragedy and the emotion of the cross into…a still, silent world.  Like the disaster survivors in those movies, we don’t quite know what to do next, because the familiar has somehow changed in essential ways.  But a ray of dawn streaks across the horizon for us too.

Christ has truly died, though fully God, his death is not a show.  He is not on a holiday with his Father in heaven, waiting to make his grand entrance again.  No, he has been laid in the tomb and lost in its shadowy depths.  Our tradition teaches us that the Word of God descended so far, not only to the earth, not only to death on the earth, but even under the earth, to the land of the dead, to Sheol; in order to take by the hand Adam and Eve and all those held in the bondage of death since the beginning of time, and lead them out of darkness and into light.  Paul sings the song of this morning in the letter to the Ephesians: “Awake, O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

On this day, we wait, in a strange, still world, for a sign of new life.  We wait for the joy that we know is coming, for the Son to rise in earnest.  Yet even in the midst of our wait and stillness, Christ’s redemptive work continues.  “Awake!”  He calls to us, “to a new world.  Awake to a new life.”  For our 6 Elect, this evening will find them emerging from the waters of baptism into new life in Christ.  His call echoes out to them.  But all of us are called to the same newness of life, to the same light of Christ.  We are called to open ourselves up to Lord in new ways, to allow him to light every corner of our lives.  In our reading the prophet Hosea said, “Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD; as certain as the dawn is his coming.”  We are called to waken and know Christ, who promised to be with us always.  This knowledge of Christ and his fidelity gives us our certain hope on this still, silent day.

For, what we look for is nothing less than the Light of World that dispels all darkness.  What we wait for is nothing less than our own life, hidden with Christ in God.  What we hope for is nothing less than the love of God, poured out abundantly for each of us.  Keeping our eyes on that streak of dawn on the horizon, let us look, wait, and hope well on this very Holy day.

Approaching the Throne of Grace: Triduum Retreat (Part II)

Miriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

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I began wrapping up this series with my last post, which introduced a proposal for a confession-themed retreat taking place over the course of the Triduum.  I continue here with Good Friday:

The day begins with a simple breakfast followed by a talk.  It would be ideal to have a priest describe and explain his role and experience in the ministry of facilitating the sacrament of confession.  Since a key part of the program is to rekindle a sense of sacramental consciousness among adults, the priest might discuss, in more general terms, how the priesthood and the sacramental life of the Church are connected.  In addition to dispelling some of the misconceptions surrounding the sacrament, he may want to address the following:

  • What does it mean to serve as an agent by which the mercy and forgiveness of Christ are mediated?
  • How has he seen lives transformed by the sacrament, and how has it helped to build up the community (i.e. a parish or student group) as a whole?
  • What does the middle road look like, between an overly-casual or dismissive attitude toward the sacrament and an unhealthy scrupulosity?

After the talk (and any follow-up questions), the larger group should be broken down into smaller groups, of three to five people.  Each group should be given at least two or three Old Testament passages to reflect on[1].  The aim of this group exercise is to begin to consider the sacrament of confession in light of the Word of God.  For instance:

  • What themes of forgiveness and reconciliation do you find in these selected passages?
  • What types of images of God do these texts put forward?
  • How do these images correspond with any existing conceptions you may have of God?
  • How might these images impact how you understand the sacrament of confession?

If they are at ease with sharing, they might find it helpful to discuss as a group their current rapport with the sacrament, and how they see it operating (or perhaps not operating) in their spiritual life.  They might take a moment to articulate what their hope for the retreat is.  After this group discussion, all retreatants are invited to gather for a brief lunch.

After the meal, the small groups should re-convene to reflect on passages from the New Testament.  The following questions might be used:

  • What do these passages say about forgiveness and reconciliation?  How does the person of Christ figure into these two themes?
  • What do they have to say about hope and conversion?
  • How might these passages inspire a movement from a magical interpretation of grace to a real and substantial connection with God?

After the small group discussion, there should be time allowed for a large group reflection on the different selected passages.  Volunteers from each group could summarize and share the insights of their small group, so that a kind of collage of understanding is created, with the hope that it helps draw people into some new kind of relationship with the Word of God.

In keeping with the spirit of Good Friday, the retreatants are invited to participate in the Stations of the Cross.  The meditations for each station should emphasize themes of reconciliation and relationship.  At the conclusion of the stations, the retreatants would be encouraged to take some quiet time to journal or just be still for a while, to reflect on the significance of Good Friday, and how it connects, if at all, to their experience of the retreat so far.  There will then be time for socializing, to be followed by dinner (soup is a popular choice for Good Friday).

The last activity of the evening will be a personal testimony (given by a man for the men’s group, and by a woman for the women’s group).  This talk would not be merely a matter of presenting a “before and after” scenario, since each person is a work in progress, but rather how the celebration of the sacrament has helped (and continues to help) in their personal and spiritual growth.  Has confession tangibly changed their relationship with God?  With the Church?  With friends and family?  They might reflect on the biggest stumbling blocks they faced (as the chances are fairly high that their concerns or reservations will resonate with at least a few in the group).  They might also describe any events and/or encounters which inspired them to consider the sacrament in a new or different light.  Retreatants should feel free to ask any questions they may have after the talk.

Holy Saturday:

The morning’s activity is intended to help begin to synthesize the experience of the retreat so far (such as the discussion on Scripture, the priest’s talk, the Stations of the Cross and the personal reflection).   After finding a quiet space, the retreatants will be invited to write two sets of letters – not intended necessarily to be sent to the addressee, but rather to a) refine the art of contrition and b) begin to articulate a commitment to turn from old ways to new.  The idea is to have the men and women take an honest look at their relationships, and to start articulating how they can be better siblings, spouses, friends, parents, colleagues, etc.  They should be encouraged to address letters to less familiar people, too (such as neighbors, passengers on the train, the janitor on the fourth floor, etc) – how have certain actions (or non-action) done violence to all of these human bonds?  The second letter is addressed to their own self, and aimed at identifying specific areas in their life that require attention, discipline, and grace.  They should be asked to consider how the rituals, sacraments, and ministers of the Church might assist them in their resolutions to press onwards to new ways of living.  Again, this exercise is not meant to generate an unwholesome amount of guilt; rather, it is a matter of sincerely looking inwards and attaching words to feelings of sorrow and wounded-ness.  It is a bit like pausing to look at yourself in the mirror before you wipe it clean with the Windex.

Free time and lunch will follow this activity, and a penance service will be held in the early afternoon. The rest of the afternoon and early evening will be set aside for social time and/or personal quiet time, recreation, and then dinner.  The retreat culminates in the celebration of the Easter Vigil Mass.  As is normally done during the vigil, the liturgy should begin in darkness and with a candlelight procession; in this instance, further symbolizing the personal exodus from slavery to sin and death to new life in a restored relationship with Christ.  The Vigil Mass should be followed by plenty of social time and ample provisions of the edible and drinkable variety.

On Easter Sunday, the group should come together for a final blessing and any closing thoughts and prayers, before leaving and going back into the world, hopefully with a renewed sense of relationship with Christ and with perhaps a little less luggage than when they arrived.