There is a tradition among secular media outlets and certain Christians who wish to appear down “with the times” to question the historicity of the Gospels, particularly the Resurrection of Christ. This sad spectacle prompts more faithful followers of our Lord to set forth arguments and evidence of mixed weight in favor of the Biblical account. I won’t restate them here; a quick Google search will direct you to a plethora of books, articles, and websites dealing with the matter. Not surprisingly, few skeptics are ever convinced by these apologetics. There’s too much at stake ideologically for them to give any credence that Christianity is true. As for Christians themselves, including Catholics, there remains a sense—perhaps even a strong sense—that while Christ’s death on the Cross “did something,” whatever happened on Holy Saturday and Pascha is of peripheral importance. Maybe Christ rose from the dead; but if he did not, then we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. What is “crucial,” what is “central,” is that by at least arising in the hearts of his closest followers, Jesus and the message of peace he (allegedly) came to spread lives on to this very day among those who call themselves Christians.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who, following the questionable thinking of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, profess that something really happened after the Crucifixion, namely Christ enduring radical suffering in hell. And although those who challenged Balthasar on this point were for many years subjected to derision and false accusations on the grounds that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI endorsed Balthasar, Lyra Pitstick’s Christ’s Descent into Hell (Eerdmans 2016) demonstrates that Balthasar’s heterodoxy never met with papal approval. Where the desire for the tormented Christ comes from is anybody’s guess. However, it is not entirely surprising that those whose views cut along Balthasarian lines tend to lean Universalist as well, perhaps believing that the profundity of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the devil could only give rise to such a powerful explosion of grace that even the hardened unbeliever, the unrepentant sinner, and the far larger mass of humanity which has always been lukewarm will be saved. (Exceptions to this “rule” include Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)
For those orthodox souls who still hold to the traditional understanding of Holy Saturday, an opportunity is presented to meditate on not only Christ’s salvific work, but the present state of the Catholic Church. For more than 50 years, the faithful have been forced to watch the passion of the Church, how she has been made to suffer terribly and almost seem to die in those lands which for over a millennium accepted her. Although this suffering may no longer be over, orthodox Catholics find themselves in the darkness of Holy Saturday and the confusion that accompanies witnessing the Church—which is of divine origin—decline and crumble like a mere human institution. While faith tells these Catholics that the Church can never truly die (“the gates of hell shall not prevail”), that she will ultimately overcome the present trials God has given her, there remains an understandable distress among the faithful over when she will rise up again. It is not surprising that this distress gives rise to certain eschatological expectations that may or may not be warranted.
Distress often gives way to despair, something that Catholics have no right to do. It is not possible to remain faithful to the deposit of faith and hold that the Church is coming to an end. This is why it is imperative to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love; without them there is no conceivable way a man can endure the ongoing crisis. Even if one is not inclined toward embracing the moral depravity that contemporary society has worked so hard to normalize, the temptation to abandon the narrow path to Heaven out of a belief that Catholicism no longer has anything to offer (or, rather, nothing “exclusive” to offer) still pulls at the hearts and minds of many. It is very hard to take seriously what so many in the Church no longer seem to care about, namely Salvation—“the one thing needful.” If eternal bliss or, absent that, metaphysical surety and mundane comfort, are to be found primarily in one’s “authentic life choices,” then what use is the Church? Is it not merely a cultural expression, a barely living artifact destined to go the way of the cult of Apollo or the Norse religion?
Heaven forbid that thought should enter the mind of any Catholic, but it does every day. Perhaps then on this Holy Saturday and certainly tomorrow’s Paschal celebration we should rejoice in Christ’s conquest over death while directing that joy into fervent prayer for God to illumine those tempted by the darkness of despair. A season of great joy is upon us; let us not celebrate selfishly in the confidence that we are not lost, but rather hope that the Paschal Mystery will be felt by those tempted to abandon the Faith altogether. For who knows what scandal, what false teaching, or poor example from a priest or prelate will rattle our commitment to the Church. And on that day, won’t our souls long for the grace to remain resolute so that we, too, may join the choirs of angels and saints in Heaven, singing praises before the Throne of God?