View all Novenas | November 3, 2023
Part 4 – God the Son – Week 4
Part 4 – God the Son – Week 4
He descended into Hell (1)
Ratzinger begins his reflection on the truth that Jesus ‘descended into Hell’ by pointing out that the teaching appears to be not only difficult to understand in and of itself, but also very tangential to our everyday faith. Would anything really be lost if we simply eliminated it from the Creed?, he asks. The answer he then provides to this provocative question is nothing less than astonishing. Christ’s descent into Hell brings home to us the full reality of Christ’s death, he tells us: it explains the painful reality of God’s seemingly all-too-frequent silence and absence in our lives and in the march of history as a whole, and is thus actually absolutely key for understanding our own Christian life and our relationship with Jesus. Linking the descent into Hell with the Old Testament story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on the one hand, and with that of disciples journeying to Emmaus in the New Testament on the other, he explains how our all-too-frequent image of a God who is simply there at our beck and call, who seemingly needs to prove Himself to us over and over again and constantly work the miracles we demand, often also needs to die in purification if it is to rise to new depths and heights and enter into a true relationship of profound faith, trust, and love.
“Possibly no article of the Creed is so far from present-day attitudes of mind as this one. […] Instead of pushing the question aside, [however], 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? 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 belongs linguistically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety; it expresses the content of Holy Saturday, “descend into hell”.
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 which 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 form 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 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. 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 and again into this hour of silence, into the forgotten and almost discarded article, “Descended into 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 lightning 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 [21:2]), 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 Käsemann 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 the Father. His cry stands against the reality of the whole world.” After this, do we still need to ask what worship must be 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?”
- Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 , 293-297.
- Have I experienced the silence of God? Perhaps in my prayer life, perhaps when faced with illness or suffering in my own life or the life of a loved one? Have I been tempted to feel and think not just that the Lord is sleeping, but that He is actually for all intents and purposes ‘dead,’ either too unconcerned with me or too powerless to help me in my needs? Place these moments of darkness, confusion, and despair in the Lord’s hands today. Cry out to Him with Jesus on the Cross, with Jesus who descended into the silence of death, ‘My Lord, my Lord, why have you abandoned me?’