|Church of St Apollonia, c1447|
Today's psalm moves us along in the narration to the harrowing of hell, for its key verse is: "Because you will not leave my soul in hell; nor will you give your holy one to see corruption."
Indeed, both SS Peter and Paul cite this psalm in sermons reported in Acts (Chapter 2&13), in preaching about Christ’s crucifixion, descent into hell, and resurrection:
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know -- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, `I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will dwell in hope. For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence. Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” Acts 2:22-32
This psalm is one of several Scriptural references for the statement we regularly affirm in the Apostle’s Creed, that Christ descended into hell. It is worth teasing out briefly what it actually means, not least because it has been the subject of considerable theological debate in recent years.
It is important to understand what is meant by the term hell in this context. Before the resurrection, due to Original Sin, no one could enter heaven: so Sheol or Hades included dimensions for both the condemned and the just. The Old Testament saints, in other words, had to wait in a kind of limbo, often called the limbo of the Fathers.
The harrowing of hell, in essence, refers to the descent of Our Lord’s human soul (unified to his divine person) into this limbo.
Conserva me, Domine, quoniam speravi in te. Dixi Domino : Deus meus es tu, quoniam bonorum meorum non eges.
Sanctis qui sunt in terra ejus, mirificavit omnes voluntates meas in eis.
Multiplicatæ sunt infirmitates eorum : postea acceleraverunt.
Non congregabo conventicula eorum de sanguinibus, nec memor ero nominum eorum per labia mea.
Dominus pars hæreditatis meæ, et calicis mei : tu es qui restitues hæreditatem meam mihi.
Funes ceciderunt mihi in præclaris; etenim hæreditas mea præclara est mihi.
Benedicam Dominum qui tribuit mihi intellectum; insuper et usque ad noctem increpuerunt me renes mei.
Providebam Dominum in conspectu meo semper : quoniam a dextris est mihi, ne commovear.
Propter hoc lætatum est cor meum, et exsultavit lingua mea; insuper et caro mea requiescet in spe.
Quoniam non derelinques animam meam in inferno, nec dabis sanctum tuum videre corruptionem.
Notas mihi fecisti vias vitæ; adimplebis me lætitia cum vultu tuo : delectationes in dextera tua usque in finem.
Preserve me, O Lord, for I have put my trust in you. I have said to the Lord, you are my God, for you have no need of my goods.
To the saints, who are in his land, he has made wonderful all my desires in them.
Their infirmities were multiplied: afterwards they made haste.
I will not gather together their meetings for blood offerings: nor will I be mindful of their names by my lips.
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup: it is you that will restore my inheritance to me.
The lines are fallen unto me in goodly places: for my inheritance is goodly to me.
I will bless the Lord, who has given me understanding: moreover, my reins also have corrected me even till night.
I set the Lord always in my sight: for he is at my right hand, that I be not moved.
Therefore my heart has been glad, and my tongue has rejoiced: moreover, my flesh also shall rest in hope.
Because you will not leave my soul in hell; nor will you give your holy one to see corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life, you shall fill me with joy with your countenance: at your right hand are delights even to the end.
Tenebrae of Holy Saturday
Nocturn I: Psalms 4, 14, 15
Nocturn II: Psalms 23, 26, 29
Nocturn III: Psalms 53*, 75*, 87*
Lauds: 50*, 91, 63, [Is 38], 150