Review on Christ’s Descent into Hell: Theology of Holy Saturday

Jesus descends to hell Holy Saturday

In this book, Lyra Pitstick tackles the doctrine of Holy Saturday in Christ’s descent into hell.  Pitstick, seeks to answer the question concerning the approval of Balthasar’s general theological contributions, by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Balthasar on Holy Saturday

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Chapter one contains Balthasar’s treatment on the significance of Holy Saturday, and his theology of this creedal event. Pitstick highlights four main points that underpin the priest’s theology: Christ’s descent completes redemption; Christ’s suffering increases in his descent; Christ became sin and literally underwent the Father’s wrath; and sin is expiating within the Trinity. To quote Balthasar, “Holy Saturday is…a kind of suspension, as it were, of the Incarnation…” (p. 4). Pitstick will focus on this point that Christ suffered after the descent as a major difference between John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s theology, using this approach throughout the rest of the book.

Ratzinger on Holy Saturday

Joseph Ratzinger

The next chapter relates to Joseph Ratzinger’s theology of Holy Saturday prior to his papal election in 2005. Pitstick shows that the German theologian moves away from the extremity of Balthasar’s theology. Using evidence from Introduction to Christianity (1968), Eschatology (1977), “Meditations on Holy Week,” Introduction (1997), The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), Mediations on Holy Week (1967) and Behold the Pierced One (1981), Ratzinger’s Holy Saturday theology distances itself from his mentor, Balthasar. According to Pitstick, the major differences between the two theologians is that Ratzinger focuses on God’s apparent, but not real, abandonment of Christ during his descent, while maintaining that there is no suspension in the Incarnation.

Continuing with the theology of Ratzinger, chapter 3 examines his view of the descent, after Ratzinger’s papal election. Here, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas graduate makes use of homilies, encyclicals, and books Benedict XVI wrote to survey his theological development on Holy Saturday. Like his view prior to becoming the Vicar of Christ, Benedict XVI continues to diverge from Balthasar by stressing the apparent abandonment of God in the descent.

How Ratzinger Differs from Bathasar

Another difference Pitstick found is “Ratzinger never asserts as Balthasar does, that the redemption was incomplete on the Cross, that Christ’s suffering intensified after his Death into abandonment in His filial relationship to the Father, that He was literally made sin in His descent, and that the whole Trinity experienced that event” (p. 53). Many times throughout the pages on Ratzinger, Pitstck points out that he utilizes metaphorical language to refer to the descent, and is not quite as clear as he could be with his descent theology (p. 41).

Pope John Paul II on Holy Saturday

John Paul II

Chapter four charts out John Paul II’s Holy Saturday theology. Similar to Benedict XVI, the Polish pope diverges from Balthasarian thought. Where John Paul II differs from Ratzinger is that the former is more direct. According to Pitstick: “John Paul II’s clarity makes his beliefs about Christ’s descent easy to see” (p. 59).

Three specific aspects of John Paul II’s descent theology are highlighted:

  • The meaning of “descended into hell” relates to Christ experiencing a separation of body and soul
  • Christ’s descent begins his glorification
  • Commentary on 1 Peter 3:19 refers to a non-metaphorical salvation of the just men and women.

Safest Theological Interpretation on Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

Referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church heavily in this chapter, Pitstick maintains that John Paul II’s descent theology remains the closest to the official church teaching. His belief that Christ experienced a separation of body and soul after death is in line with the Catechism number 632. Pistick states, “The RC [Roman Catechism and John Paul II] is also explicit that Jesus did not suffer in His descent” (p. 69). This is in stark contrast to Balthasar’s view that Christ suffered during the descent.

Between the analysis of chapters six and seven is a brief tangential section on Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in regards to a parenthetical mention of Balthasar in the Introduction to the The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pitstick provides the content of what Schönborn said about Balthasar, the cardinal’s Holy Saturday theology, and the possible impacts that it has for Balthasar’s theology moving forward.

To be honest, this chapter was a “red herring”. It didn’t add much to the rest of the book. In her comparison of the three theologies of Holy Saturday, Pitstick focuses again on the differences. She provides a clear standard of measurement as she details definitions about the Church’s varying degrees of teaching authority.

Finding Theological Consistency 

In chapter seven, Pitstick handles the popes’ praise of Balthasar, and provides ways to reconcile such accolades with the conflicting thought on the descent of Christ. She concludes her analyses with the following position: “There is certainly praise of the theologian, but there is no approbation of specific theses, least of all his theology of Holy Saturday, with which Ratzinger explicitly said he could not concur, and with which John Paul II took an incompatible position in his papal audiences, and promulgation of the CCC” (p. 106).

Summary

Christ's Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday

Pitstick presents a clear and concise summary of the entire book. She reiterates how the three theologians differed on the doctrine of the descent. John Paul II ‘s theology aligned closest to traditional Catholic doctrine, as outlined in the catechism; Balthasar’s view of the theology was the most controversial, and Ratzinger’s theology landed in the middle.

Despite the unnecessary chapter on Schönborn, this treatment on the theology of Christ’s Descent into Hell was an enjoyable and insightful read. Pitstick did a great job of focusing on each theologian individually. She contrasted the differences in their theology well too. Priests and deacons will acquire a new depth and understanding of the Mystery of Holy Saturday. This book will be invaluable to any homiletic and theological toolbox. 

Click on this link to purchase Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday

 

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A Good Friday Reflection: Fixing Our Gaze on Golgotha

Jesus at Golgatha

 

 

 

 

 

 


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 19, 2019.


A Prayer Before the Cross

Lord Jesus Christ, I petition you as your most unworthy servant and adopted child through the waters of Baptism to hear my petitions. Please soothe the anxiety in my heart, mind, and soul over the pressures, toils, and attacks of despair the Enemy sends my way. Self-doubt and self-loathing pervades me mind throughout today.

Saint  Catherine of Sienna wrote, “Every great burden becomes light beneath this most holy yoke of the sweet will of God.” May I receive the graces from the Holy Spirit to love myself and confidently seek your Will, not for my sake but as in loving myself I make a worthy offering to you Most Holy God.

My sins wound me. Damage my relationship with myself, my neighbors, and ultimately You Most Holy Trinity. I ask the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints in Heaven to help re-orient my gaze to the Cross of Jesus—crucified on Golgotha.

Focus on God

May Mary Intercede for Us

I recall the words from a homily by my parish priest who declared, “It is through the atmosphere of Mary that we truly are able to receive the light of the Son.” According to John 19:26-27, “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ 27 Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”

At the foot of the Cross, Jesus entrusted his beloved disciple [and all humanity] to his mother. More important, Jesus gifts us the blessing of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well.

Mary at Foot of Cross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Failures, trials, and doubts will surround us throughout life. Uniting ourselves to Christ’s suffering in Calvary brings joys and peace in the struggle. Remembering that we are all in this pilgrim journey, towards holiness, together helps sustain me in my downtrodden times.

Related Links

Where is Golgotha? Where did Jesus die? Church of Holy Sepulchre vs. the Garden Tomb

Why Catholics Must Have Bible A.D.D. Part 4- Jesus as the New Passover Lamb

Why Maundy Thursday is an Important Part of Holy Week

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Why Maundy Thursday is an Important Part of Holy Week

Holy Thursday is a celebration of The Last Supper Jesus had with his Apostles before his death on the Cross. Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain narratives of this event in their Gospels. The Gospel of John gives a different account where Jesus washes the feet of his Apostles. During the Mass on Holy Thursday the priest washes the feet of parishoners as a sign of service.

Holy Thursday

This liturgical feast is one of my favorite in the entire church calendar. The institution of the Eucharist takes places on Holy Thursday. I also find the washing of feet as a profound gesture of love and service. Finally, the conclusion of the Mass sets up the stage for Good Friday― Jesus’ Death on the Cross.

Source and Summit

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1324, “The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Imagine climbing up a mountain and reaching the peak after many days (or weeks). Reaching Holy Thursday is sort of like getting to the top of a spiritual mountain after climbing and learning about the teachings of the Church.

Eucharist quote as source and summit

Those in RCIA might find a special appreciation for Holy Thursday as they have been slowly trekking through the teachings of the Church. The peak is the Eucharist― the gift of Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Beginning of the Priesthood

Another important theme in the Holy Thursday Mass is service and the role of the priests. Traditionally, the Church refers to Holy Thursday as Maundy Thursday. This word maundy refers to a foot washing ceremony for the poor. To read the full text click here: The Washing of the Disciples Feet.

Jesus washing Peters feet

Peter refused Jesus’ act of service at first. Jesus told him that unless Peter allowed him to clean his feet he didn’t have a place with him. While it may seem strange to our 21st century mind, washing feet of another in ancient Jewish culture was a symbol of humility and love. Walking was the primary mode of travel and people didn’t have socks or shoes to protect their feet only sandals. Jesus lowered himself as he knelt with a bowl of water to wash his Apostles soles (more importantly this was a sign he intended to cleanse their souls too).

Maundy Thursday

Jesus anointed the Apostles with the sacred office of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Pope Francis reminds us of this truth when he declared in a Holy Thursday homily in 2019, “We [priests] anoint by distributing ourselves, distributing our vocation and our heart. When we anoint other, we ourselves are anointed anew by the faith and affection of our people”.

Eucharist is Food to Sustain Us

Besides modeling servant leadership to his Apostles, Jesus specifically directed  the Twelve (or Eleven) to celebrate the breaking of the bread again and again.  In Matthew 26:26-29 Jesus says,

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the[c] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Early Church Tradition interpreted Jesus giving us his literal Body and Blood under the guise of bread and wine. Centuries later Saint Thomas Aquinas clarified the theology with his term transubstantiation. A close reading of John 6 will show Jesus had many opportunities to clarify whether or not he was speaking literally or figuratively. For more information on the Bread of Life Discourse read my article 3 Reasons Why Critically Reading John 6 Will Convert Protestants.

Eucharist meme

Jesus is the Bread of Life. He gives us strengthen and resolve to fend off the temptations of the Enemy. Saint Maria Faustina wrote, “Jesus, source of my life, sanctify me.  O my strength, fortify me.  My commander, fight for me.” Her words point the Eucharist sustains us.

Maundy Thursday and Unity in the Body of Christ

Reception of Holy Communion fosters greater unity in the Body of Christ too. Paragraph 1419 of the Catechism states, “Participation in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with his Heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the Church in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints.”

Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood. The priest or deacon washing the feet of the laity recalls Christ’ act of service to Peter and the other Apostles. On this Maundy Thursday may be ponder the gift of Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. May be in a special way also pray for the Holy Spirit to guide all the clergy to serve with Christ-like love.

Reflection Questions

How will you serve the Body of Christ this year?

What can you do to show gratitude for Jesus giving us the Eucharist?

How can you support your local priest(s) in their ministry?

Related Links

Everything You Need to Know about the Sacred Triduum

The significance of Holy Thursday

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Catholic Meme Monday— Episode 1

I’m starting a new type of content series featuring memes.

Let’s be honest who has time to read a long article when you can laugh (and learn something) in much less time by simply looking at a funny meme or quote.

Will this replace my other attempts at humor (namely the Muffingate saga)? No this me trying a creative and different approach to provide YOU more orthodox, fun, and cool Catholic content.

Things are getting a bit better from last year’s pandemic pandemonium. Keep up the faith and enjoy these funny meme moments 👇

Coffee + caffeine= perfect marriage
Sing for joy as Spring has sprung.
Wait for the joke to kick in. It took me a few seconds. 😅🤣
A belated Annunciation meme. Still a classic!

Join in the fun

Send in any hilarious Catholic memes you come across during your social media scrolling. Bonus points for any original memes you create. Email your memes to chicoine.matt@live.com by Good Friday to be included in the Easter Monday issue of Meme Mondays.

Hope you have a blessed Holy Week! 🙏😊

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Palm Sunday Peace Treaty—Herod and Pilate

palm Sunday icon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the most sacred time in the Christian calendar Holy Week. As a cradle Catholic who attended Catholic schools my entire life, I have heard the extended gospel readings about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem many times. On top of that I studied graduate level theology and read spiritual works for fun. I am not telling you this to boast, but rather to set forth my struggle when it comes to these important feast days: how can I learn something new when I have heard the same readings that I nearly have them committed to memory!

Same Old Story

we heard this story before

 

 

 

 

Sadly, I had this same mindset this morning before Mass. Remarkably, we arrived at the church with a few minutes to spar. After we found a pew, our three year-old starting asking about food (the #1 topic for toddlers!), specifically granola bars. To my dismay, I realized that I failed to stock the mass bag with snacks. I figured Palm Sunday 2019 would end up in a power struggle with a toddler and bitterness over not being able to pay attention to the liturgy. Miraculously, he did not dwell on the granola bars, and I was able to listen to all of the readings including the entirety of the LOTR length Gospel feature!

In between working to keep our children assuaged and paying attention to the Gospel, I noticed a peculiar line that I never heard before. Well, I probably heard that verse, but it probably never registered on my theological radar because I grew lukewarm in my faith. Making a mental note for me to check the passage later I continued to listen to the Gospel. Later in the day, I looked up Luke’s Gospel and found that peculiar verse—Luke 23:12. It reads “Herod and Pilate became friends that very day, even though had been enemies formerly.”

Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

enemy off my enemy

 

 

 

 

 

 

The classic cliche “an enemy of my enemy is my friend” rings true for Herod and Pilate’s relationship in Palm Sunday’s Gospel. Both men were earthly rulers: a Jewish king and a Roman prefect. During the first century, the Roman Empire occupied the land of Judea.  Charges against Jesus in Luke 23:2 include “tax evasion” against the Romans and blasphemy as he claimed to be God.

According to Christian tradition, the historian Eusebius, ““Luke, who was by race an Antiochian and a physician by profession” (Eccl. Hist. 3.4). The meticulous nature of St. Luke’s prose especially in the prologue of his Gospel makes his passing reference at the sudden friendship of Herod and Pilate mysterious.

Lukewarm Leaders

apathy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Herod and Pilate presided over the trial of an innocent man. Both leaders gave in to external pressures to sentence an innocent victim to death. The former had John the Baptist beheaded at the behest of his vile wife, and of course Pilate caved into the pressures of the Jewish religious leaders to have Jesus Crucified. American author Leo Buscaglia declared, I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate – it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn.” Neither Herod nor Pilate “hated” John and Jesus. They balked at sentencing, but because of their weak wills, lukewarmness, and ultimate selfish desire to stay in power they caved to social pressures. Herod and Pilate’s actions showed an apathy over love of God.

pontius pilate

Will You Display Half-heartedness this Holy Week?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2094, “lukewarmness is hesitation or negligence in responding to divine love; it can imply refusal to give oneself over to the prompting of charity.” Wow! I did not realize the harshness associated with a lukewarm attitude. Possessing a spiritual “meh” attitude poses dangers of losing out on love. Will you aim to be holy the WHOLE holy week or merely haphazardly? The Holy Spirit prompted me to wake up when I heard Luke 23:12. Lent 2019 I have been mostly a Herod or a Pilate— apathetic toward true love seeking mostly control of my life. The good news is Holy Week is here. We can re-start our faith journey with a triumphal entry like Jesus. Let us ask for the gift of humility and the courage to avoid spiritual lukewarmness.

Related Links

Palm Sunday’s Gospel Drama

7 Palm Sunday traditions at Mass and their symbolism

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How Suffering is Purposeful

A purpose in pain

Suffering is necessary for transformation.

If I did not suffer I would not be able to rely on God as much and I would not be able to be so aware of how sinful person I am.

Pride. Greed. Sloth. Lust. Gluttony. Anger. Envy.

I suffer from all these deadly sins.

I am suffering from them a lot less than I did five years ago.

Going through the trauma of losing all that I lost in 2014 made me the man I am today.

But God‘s not done with me. And I don’t want to be done with me not until I learned to be so unselfish that it’s so natural not just a majority of the time but all the time.

I just don’t want to be a good person I want to be a saint.

I want to be a person that others look to for help and encouragement.

Suffering sucks. But you know what?

Jesus suffered. Worse than anything I will endure.

If he didn’t avoid pain what makes me so special to think I should avoid suffering.

Suffering transforms. Makes you beautiful.

How is your Holy Triduum going?

What things can I pray for you?

Live Holy Week

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