This morning I gave a talk in Burlington, Wisconsin on "Living the Eucharist" to a group of men who are part of a group called "Men of Christ." Besides an annual conference for which several thousand men gather, the group promotes spiritual growth throughout the year by means of local gatherings like today.
Since it's Holy Saturday and we were not able to celebrate their usual monthly Mass, I led the group in praying the Midday Prayer for Holy Saturday. As part of our prayer I talked about a curious line that appears in the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into Hell." Here's how the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" explains that line:
"Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there. [See 1 Peter 3: 19 and 4: 6]
"Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, 'hell'--Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek--because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into 'Abraham's bosom' [See Psalm 89: 49; 1 Samuel 28: 19; Ezekiel 32: 17-32; Luke 16: 22-26]: 'It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell' [quote from the Roman Catechism]. Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him."
This is what happened that first Holy Saturday and it is depicted in religious art as "The Descent into Hell" or "The Harrowing of Hell."
I invited the group today to accompany Jesus to the abode of the dead and to pray for people we have known who have died: relatives, friends, enemies. We did so reflecting on words of Pope Benedict XVI that can be found in #48 of his encyclical on hope, "Spe Salvi":
"The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death--this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? ... Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other--my prayer for him--can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain."