Featured Image
Christ in Limbo – Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, 16th centuryWikimedia Commons

(LifeSiteNews) — A night has passed over the Tomb, wherein lies buried the body of the Man-God. Death is triumphant in that silent cave, and holds captive Him that gives life to every creature – but His triumph will soon be at an end.

The soldiers may watch, as best they will, over that grave: they cannot hold Jesus prisoner, as soon as the moment fixed for His resurrection comes. The holy angels are there, profoundly adoring the lifeless body of Him, whose blood is to reconcile all things, both on earth, and in heaven. (Colossians 1:20)

This body, though, for a brief interval, separated from the soul, is still united to the person of the Son of God; so, likewise, the soul, during its separation from the body, has not, for an instant, lost its union with the Word. The divinity remains also united with the blood that lies sprinkled on Calvary, and which, at the moment of the resurrection of the Man-God, is to enter once more into His sacred veins.

Let us, also, return to the sepulcher, and adore the body of our buried Jesus. Now, at last, we understand what sin has done: by sin, death entered into the world; and it passed upon all men (Romans 5:12) Though Jesus knows no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) yet has He permitted death to have dominion over him, in order that He might make it less bitter to us, and, by His resurrection, restore unto us that eternal life, of which we had been deprived by sin.

How gratefully we should appreciate this death of our Jesus! By becoming Incarnate, He became a servant; (Philippians 2:7) His death was a still deeper humiliation. The sight of this tomb, wherein His body lies lifeless and cold, teaches us something far more important than the power of death: it reveals to us the immense, the incomprehensible love of God for man.

He knew that we were to gain by His humiliations; the greater His humiliations, the greater our exaltation: this was His principle, and it led Him to what seems like an excess! Let us, then, love this sacred sepulcher, which is to give us life. We have thanked Him for having died for us upon the Cross; let us thank Him, but most feelingly, for having humbled Himself, for our sakes, even to the tomb.

And now, let us visit the holy mother, who has passed the night in Jerusalem, going over, in saddest memory, the scenes she has witnessed. Her Jesus has been a victim to every possible insult and cruelty: He has been crucified: His precious blood has flowed in torrents from those five wounds: He is dead, and now lies buried in yonder tomb, as though He were but a mere man, yea the most abject of men. How many tears have fallen, during these long hours, from the eyes of the daughter of David and yet, her Son has not come back to her!

Near her is Magdalene; heartbroken by yesterday’s events, she has no words to tell her grief, for Jesus is gone, and, as she thinks, for ever. The other women, less loved by Jesus than Magdalene, yet, still, dear to him, stand round the disconsolate mother. They have braved every insult and danger in order to remain on Calvary till all was over, and they intend returning thither with Magdalene, as soon as the sabbath is over, to honor the tomb and the body of Jesus.

John, the adopted son of Mary, and the beloved disciple of Jesus, is oppressed with sorrow. Others, also, of the apostles and disciples visit the house of mourning. Peter, penitent and humble, fears not to appear before the Mother of Mercy. Among the disciples are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. We may easily imagine the conversation – it is on the sufferings and death of Jesus, and on the ingratitude of the Jews.

The Church, in the seventh Responsory of today’s Tenebrae, represents these men as saying: “Behold ! how the Just One dieth, and there is none that taketh it to heart. Iniquity has had its way. He was silent as a Lamb under his shearer, and he opened not his mouth. He was taken away from distress and judgment: but his memory shall be in peace.”

Thus speak the men! The women are thinking of their morrow’s visit to the sepulcher! The saintliness of Jesus, His goodness, His power, His sufferings, His death – everything is remembered, except His resurrection, which they had often heard Him say should certainly and speedily take place. Mary alone lives in expectation of His triumph. In her was verified that expression of the Holy Ghost, where, speaking of the valiant woman, He says: “Her lamp shall not be put out in the night.” (Proverbs 31:18)

Her courage fails not, because she knows that the sepulcher must yield up its dead, and her Jesus will rise again to life. St. Paul tells us that our religion is vain, unless we have faith in the mystery of our Savior’s resurrection; where was this faith on the day after our Lord’s death? In one heart only, and that was Mary’s. As it was her chaste womb that had held within it Him, whom heaven and earth cannot contain, so on this day, by her firm and unwavering faith, she resumes within her single self the whole Church.

How sacred is this Saturday, which, notwithstanding all its sadness, is such a day of glory to the mother of Jesus! It is on this account that the Church has consecrated to Mary the Saturday of every week.

But it is time to repair to the house of God. The bells are still silent: our faith must speak to us, and make us eager to assist at the grand mysteries, which the liturgy is about to celebrate. Surely, the Christian sentiment must be dead in them who can be willingly absent from their Church on such a morning as this. No, it cannot be, that we, who have followed the celebration of the mysteries of our religion thus far, can flag now, and lose the graces of this morning’s magnificent service.

It was the practice of the Church, and one that had been handed down from the earliest Ages, that the sacrifice of the Mass should not be offered up either yesterday or today. Yesterday, the anniversary of Jesus’ death was exclusively devoted to the remembrance of the mystery of Calvary, and a holy fear kept the Church from renewing that sacrifice upon Her altars.

For the same reason She abstained today, also, from its celebration. The burial of Christ is a sequel of His Passion: and during these hours when His body lay lifeless in the tomb, it was fitting that the sacrifice, wherein He is offered as the perfect and risen Jesus, should be suspended.

Even the Greek Church, which never fasts on the Saturdays of Lent, follows the practice of the Latin Church for this Saturday: she not only fasts, but she even omits the celebration of the Mass of the Presanctified.

Such, we repeat, was the discipline of the Latin Church for nearly a thousand years: but about the eleventh century an important change began to be introduced with regard to the celebration of Mass on Holy Saturday. The Mass which, hitherto, had been celebrated during the night preceding Easter Sunday then began to be anticipated, on the Saturday; but it was always considered as the Mass of the hour of our Lord’s resurrection, and not as the Mass of Holy Saturday.

The relaxations, that had been introduced with regard to fasting, were the occasion of this change in the liturgy. In the first ages, the faithful watched the whole night in the church, awaiting the hour when our Lord rose triumphant from the tomb. They also assisted at the solemn administration of baptism to the catechumens, which so sublimely expressed the passing from spiritual death to the life of grace.

There was no other vigil in the whole year which was so solemnly observed as this: but it lost a great portion of its interest, when the necessity of baptizing adults was removed by Christianity having triumphed wheresoever it had been preached. The orientals have kept up the ancient tradition to this day: but, in the West, dating from the eleventh century, the Mass of the resurrection hour has been gradually anticipated, until it has been brought even to the morning of Holy Saturday.

Durandus of Menda, who wrote his “Rational of the Divine Offices,” towards the close of the 13th century, tells us that, in his time, there were very few Churches which observed the primitive custom: even these soon conformed to the general practice of the Latin Church.

As a result of this change, there is an apparent contradiction between the mystery of Holy Saturday and the divine service which is celebrated upon it; Christ is still in the tomb, and yet we are celebrating His resurrection: the hours preceding Mass are mournful, and before mid-day, the paschal joy will have filled our hearts.

We will conform to the present order of the holy liturgy, thus entering into the spirit of the Church, who has thought proper to give Her children a foretaste of the joys of Easter. We will give a general view of the solemn service, at which we are going to assist; afterwards, we will explain each portion, as it comes.

The great object of the whole of today’s service, and the center to which every one of the ceremonies converges, is the baptism of the catechumens. The faithful must keep this incessantly before them, or they will be at a loss how to understand or profit by the liturgy of today.

First of all, there is the blessing of the new fire, and the incense. This is followed by the blessing of the Paschal candle. Immediately after this, are read the twelve prophecies, which have reference to the mysteries of today’s service. As soon as the prophecies are finished, a procession is formed to the baptistery, and the water is blessed. The matter of baptism thus prepared, the catechumens receive the sacrament of regeneration. Confirmation is then administered to them by the bishop.

Immediately after this, the holy sacrifice is celebrated in honor of our Lord’s resurrection, and the neophytes partake of the divine mysteries. Finally, the joyous Vesper Office comes in, and brings to a termination the longest and most trying service of the Latin liturgy.

In order to assist our readers to enter fully into its spirit, we will go back a thousand years, and imagine ourselves to be celebrating this solemn eve of Easter in one of the ancient cathedrals of Italy, or of our own dear land.

At Rome, the station is at Saint John Lateran, the Mother and Mistress of all churches. The sacrament of regeneration is administered in the baptistery of Constantine. The sight of these venerable sanctuaries carries us back in thought to the fourth century; there, each year, holy baptism is conferred upon some adult; and a numerous ordination adds its own to the sacred pomp of this day, whose liturgy, as we have just said, is the richest of the whole year.


The sun is setting, and our earth will soon be mantled in darkness. The Church has provided a torch, which is to spread its light upon us during the whole of this long vigil. It is of an unusual size. It stands alone, and is of a pillar-like form. It is the symbol of Christ. Before being lighted, its scriptural type is the pillar of a cloud, which hid the Israelites when they went out from Egypt; under this form, it is the figure of our Lord, when lying lifeless in the tomb.

When lighted, we must see in it both the pillar of fire, which guided the people of God, and the glory of our Jesus risen from His grave. Our Holy Mother the Church, would have us enthusiastically love this glorious symbol, and speaks its praises to us in all the magnificence of Her inspired eloquence. As early as the beginning of the fifth century, Pope St. Zosimus extended to all the churches of the city of Rome the privilege of blessing the Paschal candle, although baptism was administered nowhere but in the baptistery of St. John Lateran.

The object of this grant was that all the faithful might share in the holy impressions which so solemn a rite is intended to produce. It was for the same intention that, later, every church, even though it had no baptismal font, was permitted to have the blessing of the Paschal candle.

The deacon proclaims the Easter solemnity to the people, whilst chanting the praises of this sacred object: and whilst celebrating the glory of Him, whose emblem it is, he becomes the herald of the resurrection. The altar, the sanctuary, the bishop, all are in the somber color of the Lenten rite; the deacon alone is vested in white.

At other times, he would not presume to raise his voice as he is now going to do, in the solemn tone of a Preface: but this is the eve of the resurrection, and the deacon, as the interpreters of the liturgy tell us, represents Magdalene and the holy women, on whom our Lord conferred the honor of being the first to know His resurrection, and to whom He gave the mission of preaching to the very apostles, that He had risen from the dead, and would meet them in Galilee.


The description we have been giving of the magnificent ceremonies of baptism has made us forget the sepulcher wherein reposes the body of our crucified Jesus. Let us return thither in thought, for the hour of His resurrection is not yet come. Let us devote a few moments in meditating on the mystery of the three days, during which the soul of our Redeemer was separated from His body.

We went, this morning, to visit the tomb, where lies our buried Jesus; we adored that sacred body, which Magdalene and her companions are preparing to honor, by anointing it early on the morrow. Now let us offer the tribute of our profound adoration to the soul of our divine master. It is not in the tomb, where His body is: let us follow it to the place where it lives during these hours of separation.

In the center of the earth, there are four immense regions, into which no one living can ever enter: it is only by divine revelation that we know of their existence. The farthest from us is the hell of the damned, the frightful abode where Satan and his angels and the reprobate are suffering eternal torments. It is here that the prince of darkness is ever forming his plots against God and his creatures.

Nearer to us, is the limbo wherein are detained the souls of children, who departed this world before being regenerated [baptized]. The opinion which has met most favor from the Church is that these souls suffer no torment; and that although they can never enjoy the beatific vision, yet are they enjoying a natural happiness, and one that is proportionate to their desires.

Above the abode of these children is the place of expiation, where souls, that have departed this life in the state of grace, cleanse themselves from any stains of lesser sins, or satisfy for the debt of temporal punishment still due to divine justice.

And lastly, still nearer to us, is the limbo where are kept from heaven the saints who died under the Old Law. Here are our first parents, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets; the just gentiles, such as that great saint of Arabia, Job; and those holy personages who were closely connected with our Lord, such as Joachim and Anne, the parents of his Blessed Mother, Joseph, her spouse and his own foster-father, and John, his precursor, together with his holy parents, Zachary and Elizabeth.

Until such time as the gate of heaven shall have been opened by the blood of the Redeemer, none of the just can ascend thither. How holy soever they might have been during this life, they must descend into limbo after death. We meet with innumerable passages of the Old Testament, where mention is made of hell (that is, that portion of the regions in the center of the earth, which we call limbo) as being the abode of even the holiest of God’s servants: it is only in the New Testament that heaven is spoken of as being the abode of men.

The limbo of the just is not one of torment, beyond that of expectation and captivity. The souls that dwell there are confirmed in grace, and are sure of enjoying, at some future period, an infinite happiness; they resignedly bear this long banishment, which is a consequence of Adam’s sin; and, as they saw the time drawing nigh for their deliverance, their joy was beyond all we can imagine.

The Son of God has subjected himself to everything (save sin) that our human nature has to suffer or undergo: it is by His resurrection that he is to triumph, it is by His ascension alone that He is to open the gates of heaven: hence, His soul, having been separated from His body by death, was to descend into the depths of the earth, and become a companion with the holy exiles there.

He had said of Himself: “The Son of Man shall be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:40) What must have been the joy of these countless saints! and how majestic must not have been the entrance of our Emmanuel into their abode!

No sooner did our Jesus breathe His last upon the Cross, than the limbo of the saints was illumined with heavenly splendor. The soul of the Redeemer, united to the divinity of the Word, descended thither, and changed it, from a place of banishment, into a very paradise. Thus did He fulfill the promise He had made to the good thief: “This day shalt thou he with me in Paradise.”

The happy hour, so long expected by these saints, is come! What tongue could tell their joy, their admiration, and their love, as they beheld the soul of Jesus, who thus comes among them, to share and close their exile! He looks complacently on this countless number of His elect – this fruit of four thousand years of His grace – this portion of His Church purchased by His blood, and to which the merits of His blood were applied by the mercy of His Eternal Father, even before it was shed on Calvary!

Let us who hope, on our departure from this world, to ascend to Him, who has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven, (John 14:2) let us joyfully congratulate these our holy ancestors. Let us also adore the condescension of our Emmanuel, who deigns to spend these three days in the heart of the earth, that so He might sanctify every condition of our nature, and take upon Himself even what was but a transient state of our existence.

But, the Son of God would have this His visit to the regions beneath our earth to be a manifestation of His sovereign power. His soul does not, it is true, descend into the hell of Satan, but He makes His power be felt there. The prince of this world is now forced to bend his knee and humble himself. (Philipp 2:10) In this Jesus, whom he has instigated the Jews to crucify, he now recognizes the Son of God. Man is saved, death is conquered. Sin is effaced.

Henceforth, it is not to the Bosom of Abraham, but to heaven itself, that the souls of the just made perfect shall ascend, there to reign, together with the faithful angels, with Christ their divine head. The reign of idolatry is to be at an end: the altars, whereon men have offered incense to Satan, are to be destroyed. The house of the strong one is to be entered by his divine adversary, and his goods are to be rifled. (Matt 12:29)

The handwriting of our condemnation is snatched from the serpent. (Coloss 2:14) The Cross, which he had so exultingly prepared for the just one, has been his overthrow, or, as St. Antony so forcibly expresses it, the bait thrown out to the leviathan, which he took, and, taking it, was conquered.

The soul of our Jesus makes its presence felt also by the just who dwell in the abode of expiation. It mercifully alleviates their sufferings, and shortens their purgatory. Many of them are delivered altogether, and numbered with the saints in limbo, where they spend the forty days, between this and the ascension, in the happy expectation of ascending to heaven with their Deliverer.

It is not contrary to the principles of faith to suppose, as several learned theologians have taught, that the visit of the Man-God to limbo was a source of blessing and consolation to the abode of unregenerated children, and that they then received a promise, that the time would come when they should be reunited to their bodies, and, after the day of judgment, be placed in a happier land than that in which divine justice now holds them captives.

We adore thee, O holy soul of our Redeemer! for thy having deigned to pass these hours with thy saints, our fathers, in the heart of the earth. We extol thy goodness and love shown towards these thy elect, whom thou hast made to be thine own brethren. We give thee thanks for that thou didst humble our enemy: oh, give us grace to conquer him! But now, dearest Jesus! it is time for thee to rise from thy tomb, and reunite thy soul to thy body!

Heaven and earth await thy resurrection! The Church, thy Spouse, has already sung the Alleluia of her glad expectation! Rise, then, from thy grave, O Jesus, our Life ! Triumph over death, and reign our King forever!

This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Guéranger (1841-1875). LifeSiteNews is grateful to The Ecu-Men website for making this classic work easily available online.