Today is Holy Saturday. Today our world waits in stillness. For a great reflection, read the second reading from the office of readings also found here. In this stillness, there is a world that has been set in a fit of rage, namely, the world of those cut off from God and His love. This world is what Dante called the Inferno. Today, I want to take a look at Holy Saturday as it is found in Dante’s Inferno.
It should be first noted that Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (which is a poetic telling of the reality of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) is remarkably short on references to Christ. I do not think this is because he believes Christ to be inconsequential to the afterlife. Rather, I think Dante wanted to reserve a certain reverence for Jesus. In fact, though they are few, he is also poetic in his references to Jesus, avoiding the use of his name (Jesus) or his title (Christ).
Near the beginning of the Inferno in Canto IV, while they are in the first circle of Hell, Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever left Hell. Dante says:
‘Tell me, my Teacher…did anyone ever leave here, through his merit or with another’s help, and go to bliss?’ And he, who understood my hidden question, answered: ‘I was a novice in this place when I saw a mighty lord descend to us who wore the sign of victory as his crown.
He took from us the shade of our first parents, of Abel, his good son, of Noah, too, and of obedient Moses, who made the laws; Abram, the Patriarch, David the King, Israel with his father and his children, with Rachel, whom he worked so hard to win; and many more he chose for blessedness; and you should know, before these souls were taken, no human soul had ever reached salvation.
Virgil informs Dante that indeed people have left Hell and that this was done by a Lord who descended with a crown of victory. This was the first time any human soul was saved.
Later, in Canto XII, Virgil draws Dante’s attention to ruins of rocks in the lower parts of hell. These ruins were not there when Virgil entered the Inferno. He then describes the events that led to the rocks being ruined. Virgil says:
‘Now let me tell you that the other time I came down to the lower part of Hell, this rock had not fallen into ruins; but certainly, if I remember well, it was just before the coming of the One who took from Hell’s first circle the great spoil,
That this abyss of stench, from top to bottom began to shake, so I thought the universe felt love–whereby, some have maintained, the world has more than once renewed itself in chaos. That was the moment when this ancient rock was split this way–here, and in other places.’
Here we see Virgil describing the fit of rage that Hell broke into when Christ descended to free the captives. It is interesting to note that Virgil describes all of Hell, from top to bottom, shaking; yet, he does not ascribe this to a frightful thing, but rather he ascribes it to love. When Christ descends to free the elect who are enslaved by sin, Hell is thrown into an uproar. This is not because of hatred, anger, or malice on the part of the One (Jesus), but because of love. Hell is where there is no love. Hell cannot hold love. Hell is endless unlove. Hell is a place many people in our world probably should work much harder to avoid. If we only truly knew the reality of it!
The opposite of love is selfishness. In the case of hell, selfishness gets mixed with utter sadness and loss. That combination creates an existence of self-loathing which will never end. Yesterday, we commemorated the salvific act of the perfectly righteous man who paid the penalty for sin (the wages of sin is death; cf. Genesis 3). Today, we see that Jesus shakes the foundations of Hell with his love. Instead of being like those who are perishing, let us fall in love with Jesus who has perfect love for us and has saved us from our selfishness. When we fall in love with someone, we begin to live more like our beloved. When we fall in love with him, we will begin to live more like he did, selflessly and for the true good and salvation of others.
God bless you and have a joy-filled Easter!
In case you were wondering:
Dante did not invent the idea of Jesus’ descent into Hell. Here are some bible passages demonstrating Jesus’ descent into Hell was something his first followers knew about:
1 Peter 3:18-20: “Being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.”
Ephesians 4:9-10: “In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
Note: The phrase “Lower parts of the earth” refers to what would have been understood as the first of four parts of Hell common in that time.
Acts 2:24: Peter says, “But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of hell, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”