Cardinal Schönborn: Shroud Speaks of Tomb's Silence

Vienna Prelate Reflects on Christ’s Descent to Hell

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TURIN, Italy, APRIL 13, 2010 ( The archbishop of Vienna is one of the pilgrims taking advantage of the April 10 through May 23 exposition of the Shroud of Turin.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn gave a reflection Monday in Turin on the «great silence, great silence and solitude» of Holy Saturday. He was citing a quote from that day’s Office of Readings.

«This homily speaks of a content of faith that we confess in the phrase of the Creed: he descended into hell (discendit ad inferos),» the cardinal explained.

He noted how Christ «tried out» death, truly experiencing it.

«It isn’t easy today to understand this article of faith. The truth of faith is formulated to us in concepts from an imagery that is foreign to us,» Cardinal Schönborn said. «The idea of a ‘kingdom of death,’ of an ‘inferior world’ to the world we live in, of a ‘hell’ that contains the souls of the dead, seems totally remote to our modern rational understanding.

«Hence, wouldn’t it be better to give it up?»

No, the Vienna archbishop affirmed, since «the Church, since the earliest times, has kept this confession firm. Should this not be for us a stimulus to make an effort to understand, precisely when the questions seems difficult and obscure?
«In fact, considering the events of the 20th century, to be concerned with the Holy Shroud, the day in which God is silent, seems more timely than ever.»


Cardinal Schönborn went on to explain that «kingdom of death,» «inferior world» and «hell» «do not indicate the place of eternal damnation, but the dwelling of the dead, in Hebrew called Sheol, in Greeks Hades. It is the place where the souls of the deceased are imprisoned after death.»
«The biblical testimonies confirm Christ’s descent to the dead as a real experience of death, as the expression of most profound solidarity with men,» he continued, citing Pope John Paul II. «During those three days, from his death to the resurrection, Jesus experienced ‘the state of death,’ that is, the separation of the soul from the body, in the state and condition of all men.»

«Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, the philosopher and Carmelite killed in Auschwitz, described this scene as a vision, in a little play titled ‘Nocturne Dialogue,'» recalled the archbishop of Vienna.
The cardinal’s meditation, which alternated with musical intervals, included the quotation of several verses composed by St. Teresa Benedicta.
«The silence of Holy Saturday, of which the Shroud speaks to us in such an imposing way, is the attitude of expectation of the whole earth. It recalls the silence that preceded the creation of the world, when everything waits for God to act with power,» quoted the cardinal. «And it is also in this way that Christ came into the world and his earthly work, his life among men and his death because of sin, was fulfilled.
«He inserted himself in the genealogy of sinful humanity, to redeem all, up to Adam, the progenitor of all men.»
«Now, Holy Saturday, in death, he puts himself in solidarity with the dead, he goes as triumphant to the world of hell, to call out all those whom death still has imprisoned.»

Death’s power
Then, the archbishop of Vienna recalled the vision of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar who makes «evident an aspect that was not much developed by the Fathers.»
«Holy Saturday, Christ’s death does not bear in itself, in the first instance, any triumphalism,» he said. «A glance at the Shroud confirms this; we experience it in the liturgy of Holy Saturday which is extremely simple, without any Eucharistic celebration.»
The vision reminds us that «the death of Christ at first leaves the disciples and all the Church in consternation, affliction and fear,» the cardinal reflected. «The believer is invited to silence, to recollection and to adoration. The salvation carried out in the descent into hell on Holy Saturday is still hidden, death still has its power, which will later be taken from it.»
On one hand is «the most profound bitterness of death,» he said. On the other is «the glory. Jesus Christ is truly dead, but in this death he is already the Blessed that calls to blessed communion all the just who have died with him.
«God descends to snatch men from death and lead them on high.»
«Descent into hell means that Christ has crossed the door of loneliness, that he descended to the insurmountable, unreachable depth of our abandoned being,» continued the cardinal, quoting the Meditations on Holy Week written by Cardinal Ratzinger.
It means, he added, that «also on the last night in which no word penetrates, in which all of us are like children crying, abandoned, there is a voice that calls us, there is a hand that takes us and leads us. […] The insurmountable loneliness of the person is surmounted since he entered into it.»

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