Saturday, April 07, 2007

"He Descended into Hell": Pope Benedict XVI on the Holy Saturday Mystery

The Absence of God... and the Conquest of Hell!

The following is a beautiful passage from Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) [1968, pp. 294-97]. Cardinal Ratzinger is dealing with an article of the Creed that causes a great deal of curiosity and confusion to the modern mind: Christ "descended into hell".

"...Instead of pushing the question aside, then, should we not learn to see that this article of faith, which liturgically is associated with Holy Saturday in the Church's year, is particularly close to our day and is to a particular degree the experience of our [twentieth] century? On Good Friday our gaze remains fixed on the crucified Christ, but Holy Saturday is the day of the "death of God", the day that expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks, so that one no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him. "God is dead and we have killed him." This saying of Nietzsche's belongs linguistaically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety; it expresses the content of Holy Saturday, "descended into hell" (cites: Cf. H. de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism).

This article of the Creed always reminds me of two scenes in the Bible. the first is that cruel story in the Old Testament in wihch Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to implore their God to give them fire for their sacrifice. They do so, and naturally nothing happens. He ridicules them, just as the "enlightened rationalist" ridicules the pious person and finds him laughable when nothing happens in response to his prayers. Elijah calls out to the priests that perhaps they had not prayed loud enough: "Cry aloud, for he [Baal] is a god; either he is musing, or has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened" (1 Kings 18:27). When one reads today this mockery of the devotees of Baal, one can begin to feel uncomfortable; one can get the feeling that we have now arrived in that situation and that the mockery must now fall on us. No calling seems to be able to awaken God. The rationalist seems entitled to say to us, "Pray louder, perhaps your God will then wake up." "Descended into hell"; how true this is of our time, the descent of God into muteness, into the dark silence of the absent.

But alongside the story of Elijah and its New Testament analogue, the story of the Lord sleeping in the midst of the storm on the lake (Mk 4:35-41, par.), we must put the Emmaus story (Lk 24:13-35). The disturbed disciples are talking of the death of their hope. To them, something like the death of God has happened: the point at which God finally seemed to have spoken has disappeared. The One sent by God is dead, and so there is a complete void. Nothing replies any more. But while they are there speaking of the death of their hope and can no longer see God, they do not notice that this very hope stands alive in their midst; that "God", or rather the image they had formed of his promise, had to die so that he could live on a larger scale. The image they had formed of God, and into which they sought to compress him, had to be destroyed, so that over the ruins of the demolished house, as it were, they could see the sky again and him who remains the infinitely greater. ...
Thus the article about the Lord's descent into hell reminds us that not only God's speech but also his silence is part of the Christian revelation. God is not only the comprehensible word that comes to us; he is also the silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended, and incomprehensible ground that eludes us. To be sure, in Christianity there is a primacy of the logos, of the word, over silence; God has spoken. God is word. But this does not entitle us to forget the truth of God's abiding concealment. Only when we have experienced him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence (in a footnote, Ratzinger notes the significance of silence in the writings of apostolic father Igantius of Antioch). Christology reaches out beyond the Cross, the moment when the divine love is tangible, into the death, the silence and the eclipse of God. Can we wonder that the Church and the life of the individual are led again into this hour of silence, into the forgotten and almost discarded article, "Descended ino hell"?
When one ponders this, the question of the "scriptural evidence" solves itself; at any rate in Jesus' death cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mk 15:34), the mystery of Jesus' descent into hell is illuminated as if in a glaring flash of lightening on a dark night. We must not forget that these words of the crucified Christ are the opening line of one of Israel's prayers (Ps 22:1), which summarizes in a shattering way the needs and hopes of this people chosen by God and apparently at the moment so utterly abandoned by him. This prayer that rises from the sheer misery of God's seeming eclipse ends in praises of God's greatness. This element, too, is present in Jesus' death cry, which has been recently described by Ernst Kasemann as a prayer sent up from hell, as the raising of a standard, the first commandment, in the wilderness of God's apparent absence: "The Son still holds on to faith when faith seems to have become meaningless and the earthly reality proclaims absent the God of whom the first thief and the mocking crowd speak--not for nothing. His cry is not for life and survival, not for himself, but for his Father. His cry stands against the reality of the whole world." After this, do we still need to ask what worship must be done in our hour of darkness? Can it be anything else but the cry from the depths in company with the Lord who "has descended into hell" and who has established the nearness of God in the midst of abandonment by God?"
...In this last prayer of Jesus, as in the scene on the Mount of Olives, what appears as the innermost heart of his Passion is not any physical pain but radical loneliness, complete abandonment. But in the last analysis what comes to light here is simply the abyss of loneliness of man in general, of man who is alone in his innermost being. This loneliness, which is usually thickly overlaid but is nevertheless the true situation of man, is at the same time in fundamental contradiction with the nature of man, who cannot exist alone; he needs company...
...where man falls into extreme loneliness he is not afraid of anything definite that could be explained away; on the contrary, he experiences the fear of loneliness, the uneasiness and vulnerability of his own nature, something that cannot be overcome by rational means. ...
...The fear peculiar to man [fear of loneliness] cannot be overcome by reason but only by the presence of someone who loves him...
...if a state of abandoment were to arise that was so deep that no "You" could reach into it any more, then we should have real, total loneliness and dreadfulness, what theology calls "hell". We can now define exactly what this word means: it denotes a loneliness that the word love can no longer penetrate and that therefore indicates the exposed nature of existence in itself. In this connection who can fail to remember that writers and philosophers of our time take the view that basically all encounters between human beings remain superficial, that no man has access to the real depths of another (i.e. the anthropolgy of Sarte)?...
In truth--one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone--the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is--hell.
... This article [of the Creed] thus asserts that... in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandoment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it. Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev. 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. ...[cites the opening of tombs and rising of the dead at the death of Jesus in Mt 27:52] ... The doors of death stand open since life--love--has dwelt in death.

I was dead, but now I live for ever,
and I hold the keys of death and of hell.
--antiphon from Morning Prayer for Holy Saturday

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