Gemma Animae (61): The Descent into Hell


Chapter 60:
On the Sixth Office and the Episcopal Blessing

[The Descent into Hell]

Desent into Hell (Pascher)
Christus in der Vorhölle, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest (Source)

The sixth office, in which the pontiff blesses the people, expresses Christ’s descent into the nether regions. Moses acted as a figure of this when he blessed the sons of Israel just before he died, and ordered them to be led from Egypt into their homeland through Jesus, who is Joshua (Deuteronomy 31). Jacob also expressed this in his death, when he blessed his sons and predicted many things about their future inheritance (Genesis 49). Christ fulfilled both this blessings, when dying he descended into hell, to the people sitting in the darkness and the shadow of death, and blessed them with his visitation, and led them out of prison to their heavenly homeland.

The bishop performs all of this when he blesses the people, and soon after refreshes them with spiritual food. However, we must note that he always blesses in three parts (ternis capitulis); then, fourthly, he will confirm all with quod ipse praestare dignetur; fifthly, he concludes with benedictionem Dei Patris: for God blessed this world three times, fourthly confirms the rest, and with a fifth blessing he shall give it possession of its inheritance.

Firstly God blessed the first men when he commanded them to be fruitful and multiply. He blessed men a second time when, after the world had been destroyed by flood, he ordered Noah and his descendants to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9). Thirdly, God blessed the world through Abraham, when he promised him Christ as a blessing (Genesis 18). He blessed the world a fourth time when he sent us his Son, who came with blessing, who blessed his own before ascending to heaven and confirmed the rest through the Holy Spirit (Luke 24). He will bless the world a fifth time when he completes those about to enter into the homeland with a final blessing: Venite, benedicti Patris mei, possidete regnum vobis praeparatum (Matthew 25).

Descent into Hell.jpg


[1] In all the liturgies of East and West the Communion is accompanied by some form of blessing of the people, though in the Roman rite this form has not much developed. The pre-Communion episcopal blessing was a highly prized element of the Gallic liturgies that resisted many Roman attempts to expunge it, before finally making its way into the solemn Roman service (Cf. MS II. 294-97). As Jungmann explains:

“The Gallic pontifical blessing, like the blessing in the Orient, was usually preceded by the deacon’s exhortation ‘Humiliate vos ad benedictionem,’ which was answered by a Deo gratias; then the bishop, with mitre and staff, turned to the people and read the formula of blessing from the Benedictionale held before him; at the concluding sentence he made the sign of the Cross three times in three directions. The formula of blessing itself was regularly composed of three members, following the model of the great priestly blessing in the Old Testament (Numbers 6:22- 26), which also appeared in the most ancient collections. After each of these three members (usually consisting of well-rounded periods) there was a response, Amen, and at the end a special concluding clause. As for content, most of the formulas clung to the pertinent festal thoughts” (296).

Jungmann cites one example from Magdeburg, for the First Sunday of Lent:

(1) Omnipotens Deus, cuius Unigeniti adventum et praeteritum creditis et futurum expectatis, eiusdem adventus vos illustratione sanctificet et sua benedictione locupletet. Amen. — (2) In praesentis vitae stadio vos ab omni adversitate defendat et se vobis in iudicio placabilem ostendat. Amen. — (3) Quo a cunctis peccatorum contagiis liberati illius tremendi examinis diem expectetis interiti. Amen.— (4) Quod ipse praestare dignetur, cuius regnum et imperium sine fine permanet in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

In the cathedrals of Lyons and Autun this blessing had been retained up to the time Jungmann was writing.

[2] This chapter is a good illustration of the how the literal and spiritual senses can be complimentary for the interpreter of liturgy.

The literal purpose of this pontifical blessing is to as a preparation for Holy Communion, one that raises the faithful’s minds one last time to contemplate the great Mystery they are about to receive, just before the great action of the Communion itself.

But Honorius has also provided a wholly fitting spiritual interpretation that does not depart from the literal foundation. Whether or not we accept his five-fold division of God’s blessings or their relevance to the five-fold division of the Gallican Pontitfical blessing, is our own concern. But one would be hard pressed to deny that it makes good typological sense for a commentator to recall the relation of this particular blessing to the Old Testament. The Eucharist is, from a typological point of view, precisely the fulfillment of every grace and blessing promised to the people of Israel from the time of Abraham, and the promise of the eternal joy of the Kingdom. The celestial food taken from the altar of the Cross is the final result of the promises made to the Jewish people through the patriarchs, prophets, and kings. In the Christian Mysteries, Christ dwells among us, and we are filled with every grace, truth, and heavenly blessing. Therefore, that we should recall this recapitulation of all Scriptural blessing now, just before Communion is eminently fitting.

From the standpoint of practical piety, recalling this fact can excite feelings of gratitude, devotion, and foster a more mystical participation in the Eucharist. Theologically, it is an excellent exegesis of the nature of the Eucharist. The same is true, by the way, for Honorius’s typological explanation of the people’s offertory in Chapters (27-30), where he shows with exquisite clarity how the Christian sacrifice is the fulfillment and recapitulation of all sacrifices made by Gentile and Jew, out of the virtue of natural religion or divine precept, since the beginning of time.

Interpretation like these furnish one more way of opening the riches of Scripture to the faithful in the context of the liturgy. The medievals, in fact, so steeped in both lectio divina and liturgy, experienced the liturgy as the natural fulfillment of their reading, as a living revelation seamlessly connected with the Word of Scripture. Their faith-inspired reading of Scripture and its types invited a Eucharistic consummation that the medievals were only too eager to discover in their inherited rites. We would do dwell to unite our reading of liturgy more closely with our reading of Scripture.

Nor, to stave off one more objection, could this spiritual meaning possibly be incompatible with the literal sense of whatever prayer text that is actually read, since whatever the particular blessing invoked in the prayer might be, it may still be understood in the same light, as one of the particular gifts of redemption that the Lord has secured for us in fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs.


De sexto officio, et benedictione episcopi.

Sextum officium, in quo pontifex populum benedicit, Christi descensionem ad inferos exprimit. Huius rei figuram Moyses gessit, quando moriturus filios Israel benedixit, eductosque de Aegypto in patriam introduci per Iesum, qui et Iosue, iussit (Deut. XXXI) . Hoc et Iacob moriens expressit, qui filios suos benedixit, et de eis futura haereditate multa praedixit (Gen. XLIX) . Has utrasque benedictiones Christus complevit, cum moriens ad inferos descendit, populum sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis, visitando benedixit, de carcere eductos coelesti patriae induxit.

Quod episcopus ostendit, dum populum benedicit, moxque eum spirituali cibo reficit. Notandum autem quod semper ternis capitulis benedicit, et omnes quarto scilicet, quod ipse praestare dignetur, confirmabit. Quinto vero, reliquis per benedictionem Dei Patris concludit, quia nimirum Deus tribus vicibus huic mundo benedixit, quarta reliquis firmavit, quinta benedictione haereditatem possidere dabit. Primo primis hominibus benedixit, dum eos crescere et multiplicari praecepit, Secundo hominibus benedixit, dum, mundo diluvio deleto, Noe et suos posteros crescere, et multiplicari iussit (Gen. IX) . Tertio per Abraham, Deus mundo benedixit, cum ei in benedictione Christum repromisit (Gen. XVIII) . Quarto mundo benedixit, dum Filium suum nobis benedicentem misit, qui coelos ascensurus suis benedixit, et per Spiritum sanctum reliquos firmavit (Luc. XXIV) . Quinto mundo benedicet, dum patriam intraturos benedictione ultima sic complet: Venite, benedicti Patris mei, possidete regnum vobis praeparatum (Matth. XXV).




One thought on “Gemma Animae (61): The Descent into Hell

  1. I’ve often wondered when preaching on the Harrowing of Hell fell out of vogue One tends to see many medieval images of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

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