‘If it is hard to understand how the Father-Son relationship is maintained when Jesus is among the god-forsaken, it is even harder to understand how it could be maintained when at the end of his passion he is among the dead. What can it possibly mean to say that the eternal Son of God has died? … The Nicene creed within its second christological answer affirms that he of whom it speaks is “of one Being (homoöusios) with the Father” and also that as part of his work “for us men and our salvation”, “he suffered death and was buried”, but it does not tell us how we are to understand these statements in their relationship to each other.
Hans Urs von Balthasar warns against failing to face up to the stark fact of Holy Saturday, the fact of a dead Christ. We can rush on too quickly to the joys of the third day; we can, with the Greek iconographers, picture a living and active and glorious Christ invading the world of the dead, raising Adam and Eve from their coffins in a pre-resurrection triumph. All that has its place, but it must not be allowed to displace or distract attention from the fact that from Good Friday to Holy Saturday the Son of God lies dead. His identification with us will be incomplete and his saving act insufficient if he does not share with us the ultimate consequence of our subservience to evil, either as its victims or its servants. Hebrews is quite clear that it belongs to the redeeming act of God’s grace that Jesus should experience the death that all of us have to experience and that this is the way he must go in order to reach his glorious destination: “… we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2.9).
Death, whatever function it might be designed to fulfil in the purpose of the Creator, becomes for those who are the sinful victims of evil the dreaded ultimate moment in which the destructiveness that is endemic to the sinful situation finally has its way. When we die all our relationships with God and with people are severed and we are carried from being to non-being: “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus dies, to quote Hebrews again, to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15).
The illusion of death as the automatic transition from an imperfect to a perfect heavenly state, deceptively propagated at many semi-Christian funerals, is untrue both to scripture and experience. Death can be more biblically and realistically described as the “ultimate enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) and our reluctance to contemplate the reality of our own death only goes to prove the point.
There must therefore be no mitigation of the awfulness of death either in Jesus’ case or our own. As von Balthasar puts it:
It [death] is a happening which affects the whole person, though not necessarily to the point of obliterating the human subject altogether. It is a situation which signifies in the first place the abandonment of all spontaneous activity and so a passivity, a state in which, perhaps, the vital activity now brought to an end is mysteriously summed up.
Death is the collapse of all relationships into unresponsiveness. Those who are dead can neither speak nor be spoken to, they can neither receive love nor return it, they can neither initiate nor participate in all the activities and concerns in which our relationships are expressed and by which they are nourished. “I have lost my husband”, says the widow, and exactly that is the source of her grief. All that makes up life is lost to the dead and they are lost to it.
And so it is with Jesus, as his body is lowered from the cross and carried to Joseph of Arimathea’s dark garden tomb. No more parables, no more healing, no more praying to his Father; he has offered everything and he has nothing more. It looks as if all the hopes he roused are now reduced to mocking illusions, his promises become retreating echoes fading into nothingness: The Son of God is dead.
As Alan Lewis puts it, we are “compelled to confront the possibility that God’s own Son is dead and buried among the transgressors, and that God himself has failed in his fatherhood and deity” and as a consequence “the world is delivered up to godlessness and negativity”. That is the reality of Holy Saturday and we must give it its own space and its own meaning before we hurry on to Easter Sunday, not least because Holy Saturday is a day that both individuals and the Church have to live through again and again. We shall all have to confront the day of our dying when resurrection may seem a distant hope rather than an imminent reality.
The Son of God is dead; his death is our death. It is an evil undoing of the work of the Creator which looks like the final triumph of all the powers of darkness that have brought him to the cross. He is dead and unresponsive to his friends and he is dead and unresponsive to his Father. This is the ultimate disruptive attack on the unity of Father and Son, this is the permitted intrusion of death into the Trinitarian life of God.
Nevertheless … in his furthest absence from the Father, the dead Son is still in profound unity with the Father. His passivity and unresponsiveness are still the expressions of his obedience that hold him in oneness with the Father in his execution of the Father’s redeeming purpose. That fact alone makes his death different from ours and, even before the resurrection, full of hope for ours. This dead man is indeed bearing the death of the victims and perpetrators of evil, but he is bearing it as the loved and obedient Son of the Father’.
– Thomas A. Smail, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 137–40.