The Great Sabbath Rest and The Harrowing of Hell

Holy Saturday is the one day in the Catholic liturgical calendar where there is no liturgy. It is a day of rest, remembering how the women waited till Sunday to go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. It is “the great Sabbath rest.”

The icon of the resurrection most used by the Orthodox Church is Jesus in “hell,” opening the gates so that Adam, Eve, John the Baptist, and others might share in the glory of His resurrection and experience fully the joy of God’s presence, Heaven.

In the west, especially since the Middle Ages, the image has most often been Christ rising from the tomb, with the soldiers falling to the ground.

However, there is a beautiful image of Jesus “harrowing hell” by Fra Angelico and his followers in one of the friar’s cells in the Convento San Marcos in Florence.


Christ, triumphant, has broken down the door to the cave and brought light to those awaiting his coming. He reaches out as if to pull them out of the darkness into light.

An ancient homily, used in the Holy Saturday office of Vigils, says:

 …the Lord sleeps in His fleshly nature,; in the netherworld he is wakening those who have slept for ages.

…He wills to visit those who sit in the dark shadows of death… The Lord takes Adam’s hand and says: “Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will give you light….

I bid you: awake, sleeper! I did not create you to lie bound in hell. Arise from the dead, for I am life to those who have died. Rise up, work of my hands, my likeness, made in my image. Rise. Let us go hence.

We rest, today, waiting to celebrate the risen Lord. But also we wait to celebrate the promise of life eternal – which begins now. That means respect for our bodies and for all creation.

Today, the Greek and Russian churches celebrate St. John Climacus. Though a severe ascetic, he wrote:

How can I run away from my body, when it will be my companion at the resurrection?

To celebrate Christ, who died and was raised up from the dead, is thus to celebrate the call of creation to be holy. We are called not to despise creation, but to celebrate the work of God in Jesus who wishes to restore to us and to all creation the holiness and goodness with which God endowed it, seeing it as “very good.” (Genesis 1: 31)

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