What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?

Resurrection of Christ iconMost of us are familiar with the idea that after His death Christ "descended into Hell," as it states in the Apostles' Creed and the Athanasian Creed. It is this event, rather than Christ's resurrection at the tomb, that is the most popular and traditional representation of the Resurrection in the Eastern Church and classic iconography.

Early Christian writers like Origen and Saint Ambrose wrote about this event as "the harrowing of Hell." This otherworldly event is alluded to in an ancient homily read in the Catholic Church on Holy Saturday and in Saint John Chrysostom's Paschal homily read in many Orthodox churches on Easter morning. Detailed accounts of it can be found in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and in the transcribed visions of the German nun and stigmatist Blessed Anna Catherine Emmerich.

Both of these accounts tell how when the soul of Christ left His body on the Cross, He entered Hades -- that is, the underworld or the world of departed spirits -- where He came to those departed souls who were awaiting the Christ and had not yet ascended into Paradise, many of them righteous and holy people.

Saints John, David, SolomonAbel, Jeremiah, IsaiahIn this paschal icon these holy ones stand on either side of the radiant and dynamic risen Christ, looking on in worshipful joy: King David, Solomon, Saint John the Baptist, Abel the Righteous, and the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Raising them up the Savior brings them into Paradise and sets them free.

AdamHe also raises Adam and Eve by the hands from their tombs, symbolizing the freeing of mankind from its imprisonment in fallen nature that was accomplished by the Resurrection. As the Holy Saturday homily relates: "The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in awe Eveand calls out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: 'And with your spirit.' And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: 'Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

'I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise." In the icon Christ stands on the fallen gates or doors of Hell and HadesLucifer lies chained and crushed beneath them, symbolizing the victory of the divine over evil: "He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! … And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: 'Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions' " (Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom).