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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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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Why the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Neck of the Body of Christ

Saint Paul wrote, “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ  and individually parts of one another” (Romans 12:4-5).  We often hear priests and bishops tell us, the laity, to be the hands and feet of Christ. The analogy of the many parts making up a whole body makes sense to me. Everyone has an individual role based on your gifts and state in life. 

What I never thought about until recently was the specific role Mary plays (using this analogy of the Body of Christ). The Mother of God connects the faithful to her Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. In this post, I will share a few more reasons why Mary is the neck of the Body of Christ.

Her Humble Role in Salvation History

Mediatrix of Grace- Mary

There’s nothing flashy about the neck. It’s a humble muscle whose primary focus is to link the head to the rest of the human body. Likewise, Mary is the connector of the Body of Christ with Christ the Head. Saint Bernard said, “It is not hard to be humble in a hidden life, but to remain so in the midst of honors is a truly rare and beautiful virtue.” 

No other person in the history of Christianity (except for Christ) has as many titles or honor given as Mary. The angel Gabriel declared, “Hail, Mary full of grace” (Luke 1:28). To the average person this type of praise could lead to the sin of pride. Verse 29 referred to Mary as being “troubled” by the angel’s claim. According to St. Alphonsus’, “Mary was troubled because she was filled with humility, disliked praise, and desired that God only be praised.” 

The humble neck is an appropriate analogy to speak of the Blessed Virgin’s humility.

Testifies to Jesus’ Full Humanity

Incarnation icon funny meme

In the fourth century, there arose a heresy, or false teaching, that denied that Mary was the mother of Jesus. Named after the bishop Nestorius who promoted this belief, the heresy formally became known as Nestorianism.

The Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 declared that Mary is theotokos (the God-bearer). Led by Saint Cyril of Alexandria, the council fathers, wrote about Mary:

“Mother of God, not that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word of God united to himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh.” (DS 251).

Mary Mother of God

Catholics honor Mary as mother, and celebrate her motherhood on January 1st because:

  •  Jesus entrusted us into the care of Mary as our spiritual mother (see John 19:26-27).
  • Honoring the motherhood of Mary reminds us of the humanity of Jesus
  • Mary as Mother of God protects against heresies claiming Jesus wasn’t fully man

Necks and Nourishment

To Jesus thru Mary

Saint Bernard of Clairvoux  fittingly wrote about Mary, “‘channel’ or, even, the neck, through which the body is joined to the head, and likewise through which the head exerts its power and strength on the body. For she is the neck of our Head, by which all spiritual gifts are communicated to His Mystical Body.”  Saint Pope Pius X echoed the same sentiment in his encyclical Ad diem illum.

Food enters the mouth of the body and is carried down the neck (more precisely the esophagus) into the digestive system. In an analogous manner, Christ’s nourishing grace is channeled through Mary to the rest of the Church’s members.

During my first Marian consecration, I experienced a closer relationship to Jesus. Saint Louis de Montfort said,

[Mary] is the safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect way of approaching Jesus and will surrender themselves to her, body and soul, without reserve in order to belong entirely to Jesus.

Notice how the saint didn’t say Mary was the ONLY pathway to Christ. You can still pray directly to Jesus. It is in my experience that anytime I reflect on the life of Mary or ask her for help I always end with only thinking about her Son.

All analogies fall short of the reality they try to explain. But analogies help us understand things beyond our full comprehension. Mary is like the neck of the Body of Christ. Jesus entrusted the Church to his Mother (John 19:26-27). Examples from Church Tradition (Saints Bernard and Pope Pius X) and Scripture display how Mary’s primary role in salvation history is to give birth to Jesus and connect us with Him.

Related Links

Saint Pope Pius X’s Encyclical AD DIEM ILLUM LAETISSIMUM (On the Immaculate Conception)

How the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God actually teaches about Jesus

 

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Why Celebrating the Mass is Like Returning Home in 2020

The death of Kobe Bryant ushered in the new year. It shocked the world. Suddenly the coronarovirus circled the globed. Lockdowns and quarantines ensued. Our lives have been upended. You may have joked about this year being the beginning of an apocalypse— honestly, it feels Pandora’s box of evil was opened and there is no end in sight.

time traveler 2020 meme

Recreational outlets for stress such as sporting events, music concerts, and festivals have either been cancelled for postponed indefinitely.  Local libraries, zoo, and museums closed. How the heck are you supposed to live? I contracted COVID19 in April and those were among the most miserable weeks for my family. And if that wasn’t bad enough the Church suspended public Masses.

I understand why the bishops temporarily removed the Sunday obligation. Viewing the Mass via the Internet was a gift. It was a grace to hear my diocese’s newly ordained bishop preach (my family ordinarily don’t attend the Cathedral for Mass so we wouldn’t have heard Bishop DeGrood otherwise).

In May several dioceses across the United States started allowing public liturgies with safety precautions. I was recently graced with the ability to receive the Blessed Sacrament for the first time in months. It felt like a homecoming.

Home is Where the Sacred Heart is

Saint Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. ” This year was a journey in the wilderness (I mean that literally and figuratively). Lent ended on April 11th however my spiritual dryness and suffering continued well into the Easter Season. Streaming the Mass on TV felt like viewing an oasis far off in a desert. Some weeks it appeared real and other times as a mirage.

sacred heart of Jesus is our home

The tangibility of going to Mass physically reminds me of the Incarnation—  God becoming man. Without that direct connection of hearing and seeing the priest in person it remained a great Cross to bear.

Saint Pope Pius X said, “Holy Communion is the shortest and safest way to heaven.” This life is not our true home. It is a pilgrimage toward our destination.

Home is about love. The truest form of love is found in the heart of Jesus.

Community of Love

Another term for the Blessed Sacrament is Holy Communion. I love this name for the Eucharist. Under the section What is this Sacrament Called?  the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1331,  (It is called)  “Holy Communion, because by this sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body.” Love can only happen in the presence of another.

Jesus told his Apostles in Matthew 18:20,  “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” This is the reality of the Church. People united together with each other through the power of God’s love.

Returning to Mass reminded me of this communion with God AND man. The priest stands in Personi Christ (the Person of Christ). While only a validly ordained priest, Eucharistic prayer, wheat bread, and grape wine are officially needed for the Sacrament to occur, it is a fuller sign of God’s love when the laity are present. Hearing the faithful sing the various hymns helped me to greater enter into the mystery of the Mass.

An Invisible (But Still Real Communion)

Mass is not boring

The community of the laity are a visible sign of communion. Yet, there is an invisible assembly present in the Mass— the angelic hosts and communion of saints. I felt closer to the holy ones during the Eucharist than when I was watching it in my own home on the television.  Jesus’ words to Thomas in John 20:29 hit home last Sunday, “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'” This world is not our true home. A world beyond the senses exist.

According to the Catechism, “The whole community thus joins in the unending praise that the Church in heaven, the angels and all the saints (CCC 1352). St. Augustine echoes this truth,  “The angels surround and help the priest when he is celebrating Mass.” Understanding this reality helped deepen my appreciate for the Mass. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Ask God to Give You Strength

God won't leave you

This year continues to send us new and unimaginable trials. Our hearts ache for love. The inability to receive the Eucharist made those challenges exponentially tougher. Some of you may still be in “exile” and wondering how long you have to wander aimlessly in the desert of 2020. God never totally abandons us even though it feels like it sometimes. Read the Bible daily or the writings of saints for comfort. Praying the Rosary or chaplet of Divine Mercy help ward off distress. I offer my sufferings to God in hopes that you may receive spiritual consolation to soothe you during your trials!

Related Links

10 Things You Should Do Until Public Masses Return

Why Priestly Ordinations Give Me Hope in an Age of Pandemic

7 Reasons to Go to Eucharistic Adoration


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