On Holy Saturday we commemorate Christ’s descent from this world into the world of the dead – into Hades itself. It is from within Hades that Christ destroys its power and the strangulation hold which Death held on humanity Death is overthrown! This is the Gospel proclamation. As Matthew Baker writes frequently quoting the theology of Fr. Georges Florovsky :
The death of Christ is of necessity for salvation precisely because through it, eternal life enters the realm of death. Thus, Holy Saturday itself is “the very day of our salvation.” As the icons suggest, Christ enters Hades as Victor, despoiling death. . . . “The power of the Resurrection is precisely ‘the Power of the Cross,’” of which resurrection is “not only a consequence, but a fruit.” . . .
Holy Saturday commemorates “the mystery of the resurrecting Cross,” the descent by which, Florovsky says – citing the synaxarion notice from Matins on Holy Saturday – “called from corruption, our race passed to life eternal.” “The tree of the Cross is an ‘ever-glorious tree,’ the very Tree of Life…’by which the lamentation of death is abolished’.” ( On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 115-116)
The church fathers wanted it to be clear that the descent of Christ into Hades cannot be understood in a historical sense as having happened once in the past. Christ’s descent into Hades has an eternal dimension and is always true, thus we too experience the resurrection fully in our own life. When we try to understand Christ purely historically, that literally fetters our minds so we lose the cosmic dimension of salvation. And the “hell” that Christ descends into is not simply a place but is a state of existence which any of us can find ourselves. To understand the Divine Christ we have to be able to think beyond literal categories and to see the universe as God sees it.
When you hear that Christ descended into hell in order to deliver the souls dwelling there, do not think that what happens now is very different. The heart is a tomb and there our thoughts and our intellect are buried, imprisoned in heavy darkness. And so Christ comes to the souls in hell that call upon Him, descending, that is to say, into the depths of the heart; and there He commands death to release the imprisoned souls that call upon Him, for He has power to deliver us. Then, lifting up the heavy stone that oppresses the soul, and opening the tomb, He resurrects us – for we were truly dead – and releases our imprisoned soul from its lightless prison. (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34138-44)