03 April 2015

Good Friday: Jesus' Descent into Hell

I wrote the following for my parish bulletin a couple of years ago so it is quite brief. I wanted to provide an enlarging introduction for it and that is the following portion in italics.

When Miraculous Healings and Exorcisms are not Enough:

 A couple of days ago (28. March, Madman or Messiah?) I posted a piece focusing on how the darkness closed in on Jesus. Just as Judas had betrayed him and left the Passover, when things could hardly get darker or Jesus more dishonored, Jesus cries out in a kind of exultation, "Now the Son of Man is glorified, and in him is glorified the One who sent him!"  Is he a madman or the messiah? On Good Friday, that question is sharpened; the darkness does deepen, shame is heightened to unimaginable levels, and sinful death claims Jesus. My point there was the Lord's work was not accomplished in miracles, or preaching, or exorcisms --- as important symbols of God's Reign as those were. In each case darkness and godlessness eclipsed these works of Jesus. In each case Jesus failed to bring the Kingdom of God in a final victory. The destruction of sin and evil had to occur at a much more profound level.

On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when death seems to have the last word and swallows the Word of God Incarnate in a long and impenetrable silence, Jesus' work continues in the most profound solitude. Obedient (open and responsive to God) even to the point of godless death, Jesus' love creates an opening for God's entrance into the kingdom of sin, darkness, and death. Obedient unto death on a cross Jesus implicates the Love-in-act we call God into this very realm and thus, forever transforms it and our entire world. From another perspective we can say that through the obedient work of Christ, God takes godless death into himself and is not destroyed by it. Instead the world is remade, a New Creation is accomplished. This is the work of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. At its heart is the revelation of God's love, not merely a demonstration of its reality and extent, but a making it real in the unexpected and even the completely unacceptable place, making it real even in the depths of godlessness.

The Depths of God's Love are Made Real in the Godless Place:

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! (Romans 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.