Friday, May 25, 2007

And He Descended Into Hell

The pagan, seeing the gold mixed with dross, throws away the treasure because he has no knowledge of how to refine it. The Christian, however, can extract the Divine gold from the dross of suffering and thus add to the wealth of his Christian character. Suffering then becomes assimilable to the soul through the power of the Cross. But to the worldling, it becomes a double-cross; inside as an intellectual complexity incapable of solution, and outside as a violent intrusion and disturbance of one's egotism. The man without faith is no more immune from a cross than the man with faith. The difference is that the Christian has only one Cross, which is so understandable, while the egotist has two crosses, whose names are Rebellion and Suffering. A moment can actually be reached by the Christian when his suffering is felt less and less as coming from the outside, or as being imposed on him, and more and more as a failure to accomplish perfectly within himself the Will of God.

Fulton J. Sheen Three to Get Married

I found the above quote from the late Bishop Fulton Sheen on Dawn Eden's most excellent blog The Dawn Patrol
. For those unfamiliar with her work she is well worth reading. Dawn (if I may presume to use her first name) is also the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On which I have not read yet (but I hope to read it this summer).

The above quote from Bishop Sheen caught my attention this morning (I'm trying as I am to write at least once a day to get back into the swing of things for some articles I must to finish. But that's another story...).

There has been some recent theological discussion in Roman Catholic circles about whether Jesus descended into the Hell (with the damned) or into the Hades of the Just (of the Old Testament and pre-Christian world). Those of you interested in the debate might want to start here:
Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange over at First Things.

For Orthodox Christians the answer is clear and given to us in the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom:

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

Christ descends into Hell and takes the devil captive and in so doing frees the human community. Whether we wish that freedom or not is what brings me now to Bishop Sheen's comments.

The great mystery of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ redeems what the world sees as unredeemable. He does not do away with Hell--but He does empty it of those it held captive. In a similar fashion He does not do away with human suffering--He enters into it in every way. The culmination of this is His descent into Hell where human suffering and misery reach their infernal apex. And by entering into our suffering He reveals to us His mercy and love for us.

This means though if we--I--wish to find the mercy and the love of God for me I can't flee from my own suffering, much less my own sinfulness. Instead I must turn around and face my suffering, face my sinfulness. Indeed, I must enter into the depth of my suffering and sinfulness.

What does this mean?

When we turn and face our suffering we discover Christ on the Cross waiting for us and extending to us His mercy, grace, peace and love. Unfortunately for many of us--and I would include myself here--we are unwilling to bear the pain of our own shame, suffering and yes, sinfulness. We want to be loved, but loved not as we are but as we imagine ourselves to be.

Bishop Sheen points out there is no real peace or joy apart from the Cross of Christ. Whatever when we try and make sense of our suffering apart from the Cross we experience instead "an intellectual complexity incapable of solution, and . . . a violent intrusion and disturbance of one's egotism." The way past the double cross of "Rebellion and Suffering" is through the One Cross--but that Cross remains inaccessible to me apart from repentance born of accurate self-knowledge. I will only come to be a whole person by knowing myself wholly as, well, unholy and fragmented.

This kind of self-knowledge is painful for me because it requires a descent into the hell of my own making. Once there I find the Christ who I have betrayed, denied, humiliated and crucified. It is no wonder that some never repentant and that others, having begun the work of repentance, fall by the wayside.

And it also not unexpected that many Christians would try to soften the Gospel of Christ's descent into hell.

Some of this must be done since, as Paul reminds us, we need milk before meat. But sometimes we soften the Gospel because we are ashamed of the Cross. We are ashamed because we refuse to accept responsibility for our own sinfulness, our own complicity in the death of God.

And yet, if we turn inward, if we make our own, unique descent into the hell of our own creating, we will find Christ there to greet us. And greet us He will, not with judgment or shame, but with something more wonderful and terrible, His mercy, peace, love, joy and forgiveness.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory