Mysterium Paschale – Holy Saturday

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NB:  After the disagreement (though not quite unanimous) that my last post generated, I hesitated briefly on this next one.  Every time I bring up von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday thesis, it generates quite a bit of conversation.  Nevertheless, I find it very useful on this third, and perhaps most mysterious day of the Sacred Triduum.  Please know that I am not unaware of the theological controversy surrounding this thesis.

In my mind, this is an example of a deep theological question that warrants some discussion.   The publication First Things did a very nice job of presenting both sides of this argument: Alyssa Pitstick representing the traditional position, and Fr. Edward Oakes defending Balthasar (or rather defending the position that Balthasar was not heretical in his claims).  For my own part, I think Balthasar’s thoughts are worth pondering, and I think Fr. Oakes is correct at least in his assessment that Balthasar is not wading in heresy in his claims.

While I do not have time, space, or expertise to present this entire debate, I would reference the readers to the series of article by Pitstick and Oakes in First Things.  Without further adieu …


The twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a work entitled Mysterium Paschale in which he attempts to come to grips with the experience of Christ on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  The thesis of the book is that Christ, in order to redeem man from the punishment of sin, must take on sin and all of its consequences and must rise from those consequences on Easter in his return to the Father.

The most striking chapter of the book, and certainly the one that has received the most attention, is his description of Holy Saturday.  For Balthasar the experience of Holy Saturday is preeminently about the credal phrase descendit ad inferna (Christ’s descent into Hell).  While belief in the statement is a matter of dogmatic obedience, the Church has not been clear on exactly what Christ’s going to Hell entailed.  Balthasar’s thesis hinges on two given facts.  First, in order to redeem man Christ must take on the penalty of death merited by man’s sin.  Second, the penalty for sin is not just death of the body, but also death of the soul.

The experience of Hell is that of abandonment by God.  More precisely, the soul has chosen to separate itself from God in the very act of sin.  God is both our efficient and final cause, so eternity spent in the absence of this God is greater than any suffering of which we can conceive, and certainly greater than any physical suffering.

Because Christ in his saving act must go through the entire experience of death, with the eventual result of its conquering, he must not only suffer and die a bodily death, but also must suffer a spiritual death, a death that is the complete abandonment by God.  The whole idea becomes more profound when we consider that Jesus is God.  As such, his “closeness” to the Father is perfect, and certainly much more intense than our own relationship with the Father.  While two separate Trinitarian Persons, they are in fact one God.  In this sense, Christ has a much greater loss when he is abandoned by the Father in Hell than any non-divine man could experience.  (Note that only in a Trinitarian theology can we even begin to grapple with the idea of God being abandoned by God.)

Another way of looking at this is that Jesus, as true man, must experience the full depth and breadth of the human condition, and as perfect man will experience this depth and breadth in a manner more perfect than the rest of us.  The human condition in its positive aspect is an original union with God, of which Jesus experiences in a far more perfect manner than we.  In its negative aspect, the human condition is the abandonment of God in death caused by both original and personal sin, a death that only begins with the destruction of the body, but continues in the destruction of the soul in every way except its annihilation.  Jesus, as perfect man, experiences the depths of Hell in a manner more perfectly terrible than even the souls of the damned.

As Christians, we have become accustomed to thinking about the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday.  On Holy Saturday, we at times become a bit more human-centered, perhaps reflecting on the emptiness and confusion the disciples would have felt as people who did not yet fully understand the significance of the prior day’s events.  Perhaps, however, we should keep our gaze on Christ, knowing that the sufferings he is experiencing today are infinitely greater than those of Good Friday.  The height of his Good Friday sufferings occurs in his shout from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!”  This is the beginning of His Hell, and today is a long and arduous experience of this abandonment – and all of this He did for us.


Note:  The traditional view on the matter comes from 1 Peter 3:19 and describes Christ preaching to the souls in prison.  Balthasar notes that the tense in this and other passages is mysteriously passive, as if the preaching occurred simply by the event of the descent.  Of course, the second person of the Trinity is the Word, so any action is simultaneously a “speaking” of sorts.  A similar “preaching” occurred to the souls of the living in his very act on the Cross.  The point is that Balthasar’s thesis in no way contradicts the traditional view.


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  1. How can He be in hell on Saturday when the day before he told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Or did a comment make all the difference as in: “I promise you today, you shall be with me…”
    Can someone clear this up for me?

  2. Joe,

    I don’t have a great answer for you. Anything I would offer would be speculation. Perhaps some other readers have references from the Church or Church Fathers. Of course, we know from the deposit of faith (including Scripture) that Christ did descend to the dead (“Hell”, “Hades”, whatever we wish to call it), so the question at hand is how to reconcile this with the verse in question. How we interpret the descent (Balthasarian or not Balthasarian) is a separate question.

    I will say that the issue of the comma does not resolve the question. In every English translation, the comma is placed “I promise you, today you shall be with me …” In fact, in the Latin Vulgate, it is a colon, and thus provides more of a separation. (“Amen dico tibi: Hodie mecum eris in paradiso.”) I don’t know Greek very well, but my understanding is that punctuation is missing altogether.

  3. The trinity Joe. “I and the Father are one.” Saint Dismas would have stood before God immediately after his death for his Particular Judgment and would immediately have been admitted into Heaven. May we all have such a happy outcome!

  4. Jake, perhaps this must remain a mystery until we see through the glass clearly. I’m still grappling with understanding the trinity, among other things, stumped by Jesus’ saying: “The Father is greater than I,” which appears to undercut the tenet of “co-substantiality.”

  5. Jake,

    Won’t argue about it here as I don’t understand Balthasar’s point ultimately. Like many of the 20th Century, he pushed the understanding of God. Did he go to far with this? I don’t know.

    Much like de Lubac and the question of nature and grace (one which I do believe de Lubac got wrong) Balthasar suffered for his position. Perhaps rightly so. But hopefully he, like de Lubac and us also one day, knows the truth of it all now.

  6. Joe,

    “I’m still grappling with understanding the trinity.” No truer words have ever been spoken, and here the personal pronoun “I” represents all of us this side of heaven! This speaks also to Phillip’s point, and here I echo his concerns of modern theologians. While some of their material is compelling and potentially fruitful, for my own part, I tend to find more of a home in Aquinas, Augustine, and the like. “But hopefully he, like de Lubac and us also one day, knows the truth of it all now.” Amen, Phillip, amen. And blessed be God that we have a Church to sort much (not all, perhaps) out for us. As with Joe’s wrestling with procession (“the Father is greater than I”) and consubstantiality … the Church has given a clarification of these principles. Do I fully understand them? No. But the more we live, the more we pray, and the more we submit to the Truth of the Gospel, the more we can recognize error when we see it, especially in our own thought. Humility, here, becomes essential, and I speak mostly of myself.


  7. Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The words of The Lord (This day….in paradise) must therefore be understood not of an earthly or corporeal paradise, but of that spiritual paradise in which all may be, said to be, who are in the enjoyment of the divine glory. Hence to place, the thief went down with Christ to hell, that he might be with Christ, as it was said to him: “Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise”; but as to reward, he was in Paradise, for he there tasted and enjoyed the divinity of Christ, together with the other saints.”

  8. Have to admit, that this had never occurred to me – and I thank you for providing the education. Once you think about it, it makes all kinds of sense..but until I read this piece, I had never understood the full scope of Christ’s suffering for us.

  9. I can not begin to fathom what Our Lord experienced on Holy Saturday. For that matter, I can not begin to fathom what Our Lord experienced period – because I can not comprehend what it means or feels like to be true man and true God. In the ’70’s, we teens used to speak of “getting inside someone’s head.” That is utterly impossible in the case of Jesus. We know he lived, slept, ate, and got thirsty and tired like us, we know what he said and how he wants us to live – but the only one who knows what he went through on that silent Saturday is Jesus. I am content to have it remain a mystery. Perhaps some day it will cease to be one.

  10. Oh, may all AC contributors and readers have a happy and blessed Easter!

    I just got home from seeing “Of Gods and Men,” a wonderful wonderful film about the French monks who were martyred in Algeria in the ’90’s. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to have seen it. Despite the ending, I came away inspired by the faith and bravery of those good men. The film does a wonderful job of capturing the contemplative life, as we watch the monks pray (lots of sublime Georgian chant), minister to the Muslim villagers, make honey, and tend to their work. Imagine – the Grand Prize winner at Cannes was a film which depicts the lives of Catholic religious with respect and dignity. And apparently “Of Gods and Men” is a hit film in secular France. Maybe there is hope for the French after all.

    Of course, Christ has risen so there is hope for us all!

    The trailer of “Of Gods and Men”:

  11. I myself find Ratzinger’s reflections on Holy Saturday in his Introduction to Christianity to be quite satisfying.

    Am I right in thinking the wallpaper on your other sight includes this book, Jake?

    Have you thought about it alongside Balthasar?

  12. Brett,

    Very observant. I myself had to go back and check to see if it was the case. The wallpaper is nothing more than a photograph of my bookshelf (or a portion of it anyway). I spend quite a bit of time trying to eliminate the glare, but to no avail. Perhaps a higher quality camera that doesn’t need a flash. At any rate, thanks for noticing.



  13. I believe that the separation from God occurred when he was on the cross, when Christ took on the sins of man it created the separation from God that he had never known prior to that. While the word from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was seemingly in reference to the Psalm, he was also fulfilling scripture. The separation from God had to be almost physical in dimension.

    The decent into Hell isn’t specified, but on Resurrection Sunday, he states, “do not touch me, for I haven’t ascended to the Father”. That seems to make it such that he had been in Hell not paradise.

    The promise made to the thief that today you will be with me in paradise, could mean quite a number of different things. One could be a phrasing, one could be that Christ ascended first, which might make some sense for him to receive judgment, it could be just a promise made immediate for one who was suffering alongside Him, and Christ being part of the Trinity could have used the “royal” type of “me” in that word from the cross.

    It is an interesting thought about where Christ was on the Saturday. Being that Satan had confronted Christ prior, you wonder if this was a further confrontation between them.

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