08 April 2014

On Loneliness and Jesus' Descent into Hell

Because I will probably not be posting during Holy Week and because we are approaching Palm Sunday, I wanted to put up a post I wrote a couple of years ago for my parish's bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is also pertinent to some of this week's readings, especially as we see the terrible loneliness of Jeremiah and (at least implicitly) of Jesus in Friday's readings. As we move through Holy Week we will see Jesus' own loneliness and estrangement from those around him both grow in intensity and reach almost unimaginable depths.

Beyond being constantly misunderstood, not really heard or seen clearly by those around him (a source of genuine pain), not only is Jesus rejected and betrayed by his own People (including the Pharisees and Scribes who understood him all too well!) and even his most trusted disciples, but in the end he experiences abandonment by the One he called Abba, the one on whom everything he has and is and proclaims relies. This terrible loneliness or estrangement is simply part and parcel of taking on the human condition of sin and godless death so that ultimately all may be reconciled to God. It is a large piece of what Jesus was referring to when he said, "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".


During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing – the gospel proclaims -- will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us! (Rom 8)

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.


Throughout Lent we have been admonished to take up our crosses, to choose life (God!), to become the disciples we are called to be. I have written about the idea that taking up our crosses means living every moment and mood of ordinary life in openness to God, just as Jesus did. Today I need to note that one of the primary forms of suffering this kind of decision occasions is that of loneliness --- the loneliness of standing in the truth and being out of step with most of the rest of the world, the loneliness of waiting for God to bring life out of our situations --- whatever they are, the loneliness of being misunderstood and even reviled and rejected by those closest to us, the loneliness of loving and being loved by God.

Jeremiah clearly knew this loneliness and expressed it in ways which were sometimes problematical for his hearers and for us today as well. Jesus certainly knew such loneliness. When we reflect this week and next on the suffering of Jesus, when we consider the immensity of the powers and principalities he faced --- powers that finally rendered him mute in his encounter with them, when we consider the Word made flesh being rendered  first inarticulate in pain and then silent in betrayal  and death by our inhumanity and cruelty, let us not forget the obedience (openness) and loneliness of Jesus' vocation nor the power and will of God to penetrate even this abyss with his presence and love.  In this is real hope for each and all of us.