04/18/2014 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Often Untold Story of Easter


It's the part of the story that you don't normally hear. When I was a child in Catholic grade school I relished saying the Apostle's creed because it allowed us to say "he descended into hell." I knew, as any twelve-year-old in a Catholic school did, that that phrase would be my only chance to say anything that even bordered on profanity in front of Sr. Rosemary and get away with it. We'd say the rest of the creed, listing off the events that we remember and celebrate every year at this time not knowing what "descended into hell" really meant. We all know the story of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and we all know that they lead to the story of Easter. Christian or not, these narratives have so pervaded Western culture that it is a fair assumption that most people have at least a passing understanding of what those stories are.

There's another part of the story which is less often told perhaps because we don't really celebrate Holy Saturday in the same way we celebrate most other things. In the Catholic Church generally no mass is said for Holy Saturday, we have the great Vigil of Easter instead in the evening. So no homilies are given, no time to gather to reflect on what is one of the oldest traditions of the Church. That tradition, which taken from an ancient homily, depicted in ancient frescoes like the one above from the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, and often called the "harrowing of hell," holds that between dying on the cross and rising from the dead Jesus descended into hell to free all of those who had come before him. Adam and Eve, Moses and Elijah, David and Solomon alike. Descending into this "hell," which is more like the underworld that the ancients thought of in both the Hellenic and Semitic traditions rather than a place of torment, Christ frees all who have come before him with a simple command; "Rise."

There is a further affirmation in the ancient homily from which this tradition comes which speaks volumes to a deeper human desire that we all understand, regardless of our beliefs. "Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead." We all feel trapped sometimes. We can be trapped by our own stupid mistakes, Adam and Eve are the archetype for that. We can be trapped by a long family history in which we never really stood a chance. Solomon, who was born out of an affair, the son of a king who essentially murdered his mother's husband, likely would have understood that. Then, of course, there are the millions of faceless and nameless people in this vision who are trapped simply because Christ hadn't come yet, and are victims of the circumstances of their times.

People of every creed and no creed can all understand one of the deeper truths behind this narrative. We have all felt trapped at one time or another, but we have all also understood that we were not made for the thousand prisons that we experience everyday. We have often enough understood that we cannot liberate ourselves from these places of shadow. For Christians, Christ liberates us from sin and death, but all of us understand that often enough we need friends, family, and those who inspire us to bring us forth from our own personal, and even our own self-imposed, hells. Holy Saturday is a day when each of us, no matter who we are or where we are, regardless of how light or heavy a burden we experience, can hope and allow ourselves to be pulled out of those places of shadow by those around us who love us. Holy Saturday is a day when hell is emptied out, and maybe that can give us the hope that our own present personal hells can be harrowed as well.