Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Dark Silence of Holy Saturday

Catholic Apologetics of America has posted a meditation from the book Divine Intimacy by By Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. :

Hans Urs Von Balthasar on "The Magic of Holy
Saturday" (posted on the blog Pontifications):

On the website for Touchstone Magazine ("A Journal of Mere Christianity" ) Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon gives an interesting reflection on chapter 3 of Habukkuk and Christ's descent into hell:

"Holy Saturday, April 7
Habakkuk 3:1-19: Although there were plenty of witnesses who could testify to seeing the risen Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), it is a curious fact that none of them claimed to have seen the Resurrection itself. Indeed, when the Gospel witnesses first learn of the Resurrection, it is already a past event. In every single instance, as far as we can tell from the Sacred Text, everyone who saw the risen Christ had first heard about the Resurrection from somebody else, beginning with the angelic testimony to the Myrrh-Bearers. It is surely significant that, in each case, hearing preceded vision.

This absence of witnesses to the act of the Resurrection is apparently the reason that traditional Eastern iconography is reluctant to portray the event. Instead of the Resurrection imagery common in the West, what we have in the Church of East is the icon of Jesus entering triumphant into hell to preach the Gospel to "the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19).

I suppose the obvious question in this respect is this: "If we have no eye-witnesses account of the event of the Resurrection, just where do we find an eyewitness account of Jesus' descent into hell?" In other words, if the absence of such an account renders us reluctant to paint icons of Jesus' Resurrection, what justifies our painting icons of His descent into hell? Do we, after all, have a biblical eyewitness to this latter event?

And the Church's answer to this question has always been, "Yes, we do have such a witness, and his name is Habakkuk." In truth, the Church has ever regarded the third chapter of Habakkuk as a prophetic vision of Jesus' triumphant descent into hell to preach the Gospel to the spirits in prison and to bring forth the ancient saints who so eagerly awaited His arrival.

This reading of Habakkuk is the reason why that prophet's third chapter, for nearly two thousand years in the Church of the West, served as the normal Matins Ode on Friday, the day weekly commemorative of our Lord's death. In the Eastern Church, that same text is chanted among the Matins Odes of Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. The object of Habakkuk's vision, then, is central to the Church's faith, so central that the event itself is included in the Nicene Creed: "He descended into hell."

It is no wonder, then, that when the New Testament speaks of the importance of faith, its cited authority on the point is often Habakkuk, whose affirmation "the just shall live by his faith" (2:4) becomes a kind of rallying cry among believers (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).

Because Christ's triumphant descent into hell still lay in the future, Habakkuk was obliged to await the fulfillment of the mystery he had beheld in prophetic vision. The Lord instructed him, nonetheless, to inscribe it plainly, in order to prepare His believing people for the coming day: "Write the vision/ And make it plain on tablets, / That he may run who reads it. / For the vision is yet for an appointed time;/ But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. / Though it tarries, wait for it; / Because it will surely come, / It will not tarry" (Habakkuk 2:2-4).

It is important, therefore, not to separate Habakkuk's contemplation of Jesus in the nether world from his affirmation that "the just shall live by his faith." Otherwise this affirmation becomes a merely general notion divorced from its Christological reference. The faith of Habakkuk is faith in the triumphant Christ, that living Gospel striding into the nether world, victorious over sin and death.

The "life" to which Habakkuk refers, the life by which the righteous live, is the paschal life offered by the Christ who tramples down death by death. Habakkuk's role among God's people, then, is that of a visionary who inscribed what in mystic contemplation he beheld, when God came from Teman in order to strike the head from the house of the wicked and to thrust him through with his own arrows.

Zechariah 14: A nun from Gaul, named Egeria, who visited the Christians at Jerusalem in the late fourth century, left us a description of the various liturgical practices of that ancient church. In the course of it, she described how, on Ascension Thursday, the believers gathered on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus had ascended into heaven. And what did they do? They read the entire account, from the Gospel according to John, of the Lord's suffering and death.

This remarkable detail reveals how closely the Christians of old to be the various actions of the Lord by which we were redeemed. They did not think of redemption as taking place solely on the Cross, where the price of our sins was paid by our Lord's blood (1 Peter 1:19), but as involving also the other events integral to the mystery of the Cross. The accomplishing of our redemption included also the event we celebrate today, Holy Saturday, when Jesus descended into the nether world to free the bondsmen whom Satan held there (3:19).

It included likewise His rising from the dead of Easter, inasmuch as Jesus “was delivered up for our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). As was suggested by Egeria's account of the celebration of Ascension Thursday, the mystery of our redemption included also our Lord's ascent into heaven and His taking His throne at the right hand of the Father, having been made for ever a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This latter theme, of course, provides the major images of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

With this in mind, we should not be surprised that the Book of Zechariah, in the final chapter of its section dealing more explicitly with the sufferings of our Lord, prophesies the Lord's standing on the Mount of Olives (verse 4), which are symbolically divided, much as He once divided the Red Sea and the River Jordan. His ascent from the Mount of Olives will cause to flow the living waters of redemption (verses 8-9) and the reunion of all God's people in the Holy City (verses 14-21). "

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