“Descended into hell”—perhaps no other article of the Creed is as alien to our contemporary mode of thought as this one. And yet, does not this article, which, in the course of the Church year, is liturgically ordered to Holy Saturday and which is especially significant for us today, express in an eminent degree the experience of our century?
On Good Friday, our gaze remains fixed on the Crucified One. But Holy Saturday is the day when God is dead, the day that gives voice to and anticipates the shocking experience of our time: that God seems to be absent, that he is in his grave, that he will not awaken again, not speak again, so that one need no longer dispute his existence, but can simply forget about him.
“God is dead, and we have killed him.” These words of Nietzsche belong linguistically to the tradition of Christian devotion to the Passion; they express the essence of Holy Saturday, the “descended into the kingdom of death”. When I think of this article, my thoughts revert to the account of our Lord asleep during the storm on the Lake of Galilee (Mk 4:35–41), or to his meeting with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–35). The troubled disciples speak of the death of their hope. What had taken place was, for them, something similar to the death of God: the source through which God seemed to have spoken to them at last was extinguished. The One sent by God was dead; there remained only a complete void. There was no longer any answer.
But while they spoke thus of the death of their hope and were no longer able to see God, they failed to observe that this very hope stood alive before them. The article about the Lord’s descent into hell reminds us, then, that it is not only God’s speech, but also his silence that belong to Christian revelation. Only when we have experienced him as silence can we hope to hear as well his speech that issues in silence. Can we wonder that the Church, that the life of the individual, leads us again and again to this hour of silence, to this ignored and forgotten article: “descended into hell”?
Pope Benedict XVI, from Veraltetes Glaubensbekenntnis?, in the Logos Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Collection. Also in C0-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year.