Date: April 6, 2007, Good Friday
Although the Triduum is one feast, we celebrate it over three days because the paschal mystery is so deep and rich that we need the time to focus on various aspects of the mystery. We are not just remembering a historical event, or re-enacting something that happened a long time ago, but we are entering into this paschal mystery as it unfolds here and now, and into the future. I would guess that of all the various aspects of this mystery, the hardest to enter into is what we celebrate over these next 24 hours. What we celebrate now is expressed in the Apostles creed as Jesus "descended to the dead ." The older formulation that many of us grew up praying was that Jesus "descended into hell."
It is the hardest part for a lot of reasons. We really don't have a lot of liturgical support for reflecting on, and entering into, this idea of Jesus descending into hell. In addition, the most common metaphor or image that we have of hell makes the very statement a contradiction in terms. For the most part, the way we think of hell is as a place of pain and torment, to which God banishes us as punishment if we die in the state of mortal sin. In other words, if we commit a grave sin, a mortal sin, and die without repenting of this sin, then we come before God to be judged, at which point God sends us off to hell.
Using that image of hell, we have a problem with "Jesus descended into hell" because, obviously, God did not send Jesus to hell as punishment for dying in the state of mortal sin. Even a more sophisticated image of hell that talks about it not as a place, but as a state of separation from God does not solve the conflict. Then we have Jesus, who is God, entering a state of separation from God.
You see, as do so many aspects of the Incarnation and the paschal mystery, the idea of Jesus descending into hell challenges the way we think about many things. The central challenge is really to the way we think about God.
A few years ago, Robin Williams starred in a movie called "What Dreams May Come". And while there were some things in that movie that are contrary to our Catholic theology, the main themes resonate reasonably well with it, and suggest a way of thinking about what we are invited to enter into as we await tomorrow evening. In the movie, Robin Williams is a wonderful, loving doctor. He is married to a woman who is mentally ill and who attempts suicide several times. Then Robin's character is killed in an accident as he helps another victim. He finds himself in what most Catholics would recognize, not as heaven, but as purgatory, as he goes through a purification process, deepening his understanding of love. While in this process, he finds out that his wife has finally succeeded in taking her life, and so is now in hell. Despite the comforting of his mentors and their assurance that his wife's fate is permanent, he decides to go find her. His love for her is so great that he believes he can love her out of hell. Against all the wisdom around him, he seeks her out, finds her, and does indeed love her out of hell.
There are several things I like about this image of hell as opposed to the conventional one. The first is that it is clear that the hell that Robin's wife is in is of her own making. It is not a place that God sent her to but a place she has put herself in, and around which she has erected barriers to keep love out. There is no separation of sin and punishment, with us committing the sin, and God inflicting the punishment. That isn't my experience of sin and I would suggest that if you think about it, it is not yours. In fact, most often, the act that we consider the sin is not the sin at all, it is the effect of the sin, and part of the punishment we inflict on ourselves through sin. It is my brokenness in thinking that I am so bad that God could never love me that lets me commit the act we regard as the sin. It is my brokenness in thinking that I am so worthless that I could never love God that puts me in my hell, right now, not when I die. And this brokenness is a common human experience, isn't it?
The second thing I like about this image of hell is the implied idea that love (and God is love) knows no barriers, and can never be at peace while separated from one who is loved. True love is relentless in penetrating whatever barrier we might construct to keep it out.
Jesus descended into hell is the natural conclusion of the incarnation. If Jesus is to participate fully in the human experience, he had to descend into hell because so many of us have that experience. If the Incarnation is to give us the hope that God is with us wherever we are, Jesus had to descend into hell to make it clear that nowhere is there a place or state apart from the Father's love. God is always there.
To say that Jesus descended into hell means he trusted the Father so deeply that he was able to let go of his relationship to the Father and experience that despair of not being able to feel Gods love: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me. And even out of those depths, the Father raised him on high, and promises the same to us. We celebrate that mystery today. We enter into this descent into hell in the waters of baptism. Our current symbols have really lost their ability to convey this death experience in baptism. Compare how we baptize today to the ancient custom of holding the baptized under water till they struggled for air. And then they were raised to new life, new breath in the spirit. We are invited, over the next 24 hours, to enter into this dying to our old life in the hope of rising to new life in Christ, not just when we die, but here and now.