On Holy and Great Saturday, Christians in the ancient churches celebrate Christ's descent into Hades, known as the Harrowing of Hell in certain English-speaking circles. A recent article at Salon seemed to suggest that we would rather not acknowledge Christ's descent into Hades (or Sheol), but this seems odd in light of the fact that the ancient churches all have an official celebration for it of some kind and it is referenced in the Apostle's Creed.
In both the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions this day (which I celebrate today with my Orthodox friends according to their liturgical calendar) is acknowledged as a day of rest and waiting appropriate to the Sabbath. It is simultaneously acknowledged that just as Jesus healed the man blind from birth on the Sabbath and gave him a life more beautiful than he had ever imagined possible, on the Great Sabbath our Savior healed the world of its attachment to death to give us a life more beautiful than we can imagine is possible; by His death, Death itself was trampled down, rendered powerless by the power of Love.
Christ our Love, the one who is Love, opened the way to Heaven from Hades; just as He who is Love transformed the world for all time by His entrance into the world, so too He transformed the underworld by His entrance into Hades, ending the separation of the righteous dead from the eternal life God so desires for them and for all of us. In making it possible for us to join our Love in eternal life by ending that separation, He showed us how it is possible for us to be separated from our sin, to be truly healed of our egotistical whims which separate us from participating in the divine life of our Love.
Christ showed us an image of the death of sin by showing us His death on the cross; just as He bore our sins fully with us in the sacrifice on the cross, so too he showed us how to loosen the shackles of sin and be liberated from our slavery to our own transient desires. Just as Christ let go of life in the flesh by the ultimate act of love, so too must we let go of life in the flesh by our acts of love for others, trampling down the sin that causes our death by dying to sin. Just as the death of what is human and bears all sin on the cross was what brought about the possibility of the divinized life through sanctification, so too is the death of what is merely human in us, the egotistical whims, is what brings about the possibility of full participation in the divine life of love.
The death of sin requires us to follow Christ into the underworld where our souls wait in hopeless darkness, to confront our sin and reject it so powerfully that we are repulsed by it, propelled by the sheer force of love for Love out of the tomb with Him and into a radically transformed life in which we love the world so strongly that we pull it towards its own radical transformation, participating in the divine life of love which transforms all of creation.
Christ shows us that the only way to triumph over death is to greet it with joy, a loving acceptance of the fact that union with our beloved requires us to die to death by dying to its cause, the sin that separates us from the eternal life in union with God the Father. He also shows us that this triumph will inherently involve great suffering, that separating ourselves from the sin which separates us from God means entering into the Dark Night of the Soul with its difficult struggles as we work with Christ to become more like Him so that we can leave our attachments to the flesh behind and exist in the perfect freedom of love in the presence of Love.
The death of our Love has made possible our eternal life in Love; we can now love to death our attachments to everything which separates us from Love, letting our embrace of death on the cross of our life's sufferings open us to the possibility of eternal life by way of our death for the sake of our love for the one who loved us unto death.
In Christ, we can love to death our love of the sin that brings about our death, choosing to follow Him in the way of loving to death all that separates us from the Love of God. Christ has made possible the impossible in allowing us to transcend our false love of sin which leads to our true death; we can now love to death our love of death.
By Surgun100 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8724640
Note: The icon above depicts Christ's triumph over the grave.