“He descended into Hell” – a meditation for Holy Saturday
Descent into the dead or to hell?
If you visit a Church on Good Friday evening or early on Holy Saturday you will find an awkward and eerie silence, the presence of a painful sense of absence similar to that which we experience in the home of a recently deceased loved one. The church is devoid of candles or flowers, the altar deliberately stripped bare, the lights extinguished. The liturgy of Holy Saturday is a non-liturgy; the dead Christ is in his tomb.
The Apostle’s Creed has a line we find missing in the Nicene Creed, an article of faith that can guide our meditation on Holy Saturday: “He descended into hell” or what is sometimes translated as “he descended to the dead” (descendit ad inferos).
According to Karl Rahner this article of faith is inviting us to consider how Jesus Christ shared fully the reality of death which is the fate of all fallen human beings. Precisely because Jesus was the most fully human of us, the one who came that we might have life and live it to the full, more than any of us he would have experienced the anonymity and darkness of death as life’s most intense and painful contradiction. Between crucifixion and resurrection we can meditate upon Jesus’ going before us, as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, into the state of death that still remains terrifying for us, and learn to imitate his trustful surrender to the Father.
Another theological tradition suggests that Jesus descended not only into the realm of death, but actually into hell, that is, into the state not just of the dead but of the dead who are also the damned. For Hans Urs Von Balthasar, there are no holds barred in terms of the incarnation; the Word of God embraces human flesh in all its forms, including its most tragic. In taking flesh, the Word of God identifies even with those who have freely and definitively chosen to turn their backs on God; with those who, through their own fault, have irrevocably lost their way from God and their true selves. Thus the incarnation embraces the humanity even of those in whom inhumanity would seem to have held definitive sway.
Pure love is disturbing
Hans Urs Von Balthasar pushes us to consider the paradox of the dead Christ descending into hell to be there with the God-forsaken in their self-made state of desolation, dead with them, lonely with them. Being God’s Son, God’s Word in flesh, Jesus experiences more intensely and painfully than any human being the state of abandonment by the Father whose love he has uniquely and most intensely experienced, a love that he has returned most faithfully even unto death.
In hell, the dead Jesus is incapable of acting in the same way as a living being can. Yet his presence there is the fruit of a life which was pure self-sacrificing love. The presence of pure love is disturbing. And so, Balthasar says, “exactly in that way he disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner, who wants to be “damned” apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God in the absolute weakness of love.” Balthasar even suggests that what we call “hell” is, “although a place of desolation, always still a christological place”. By this he means that even in hell, the state of self-chosen alienation from God, the place of definitive dis-grace, God’s grace through Christ can still be encountered.
Does this mean that ultimately all people are saved? Balthasar struggles to leave this question open, as we must, while at the same time bearing in mind the Christian obligation to hope for the salvation of all, which is not the same as to anticipate or to expect, the salvation of all.
How Christ’s descent into hell challenges us
How does our meditation on the meaning of Holy Saturday challenge us to act while we are still among the living? Christians by definition are followers of Christ, called to do what he did: “Do this in memory of me”. But it is profoundly disturbing to consider fully what “this” might entail.
We can begin, as all prayer should, by giving thanks. Taking up a line of the Easter Exultet, we can reflect upon “What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer?” The state of being dead, of all that is good, true and beautiful in us and in life being vanquished, defeated and swallowed up in a deathly void; this would have been our permanent fate if Christ had not died for us and been raised from the dead. To appreciate being rescued, we need to contemplate what we have been rescued from.
As we reflect on Christ’s descent into hell, are we not also invited to consider the various hells that are our own construction work in progress, or which we already partially occupy? The no-go signs we have already erected against God’s grace, the self-destructive places in our inner lives to which we retreat whether out of fear or pain, and from which we inevitably emerge only to wound and hurt? Can we dare to believe in the power of “the weakness of love” to reach us and heal us?
And what about all of those whose innocent lives have been crushed and who have been condemned to a hellish existence by the actions, inaction and inhumanity of others? Can we take time in prayer to enter into solidarity with them in their profound sense of abandonment and desolation?
And, finally, at a time when words of judgment and condemnation are widespread in our Church, can we recognize that “mercy is the other side of true justice”? Reflecting upon the innocent Christ’s universal solidarity with sinners, can we free ourselves from the individualism and mere tribal solidarity which marks our culture, and join with Christ in bearing the sin and guilt of the least and even the so-called greatest of our brothers and sisters?
Eamonn Conway is a priest and theologian