Christ’s Descent into Hell is the Strangest Truth of All

All the dungeons of death have been thrown open by the Lord of Life.

Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo,” 1441
Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo,” 1441 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

What is the bottom line of Christian faith? Is there an essential element, the expression of which says everything? And if so, is it reasonable to expect people living today to believe it?

These were questions that a young German professor by the name of Josef Ratzinger wrestled with in the summer of 1967, laying them before his students in a series of lectures which later became a famous book called Introduction To Christianity. A book so captivating that on the strength of its argument Pope Paul VI practically made him a bishop on the spot, thereupon setting in motion a series of elevations that would eventuate in his becoming pope — Benedict XVI.

While I cannot speak for others concerning the impact the book had on their lives, it certainly produced a great sea change in my own, turning my head in a definite theological direction, one from which I have never looked back.

What particularly moved me about the book was the section in which he undertook to explain what is surely the strangest article of the Church’s faith, namely, the Descent of Christ into Hell. Of the 12 articles in the creed, there is none so dark nor so deep. The fact that it is situated square in the center of the Creed, moreover, suggests that it is perhaps the most pivotal. His description of it so galvanized the attention that, once read, one could never get over it. Certainly I have not stopped wondering, or writing about it, since.

The Mystery of Holy Saturday, the day on which God is dead, is an event which captures, says Ratzinger, “the unparalleled experience of our age… that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakens, no longer speaks… the descent of God into muteness, into the dark silence of the absent.”

How perfectly that describes this present moment, amid the silence of shuttered churches, the absence of liturgy everywhere in the public life. We witness, therefore, during these days especially, the most profound kinship between ourselves and God. Are we not enshrouded together within the silence and the loneliness of what feels to be one long Holy Saturday? Never forgetting, of course, that silence too is salvific, that God is not only, as Ratzinger puts it, “the comprehensible word that comes to us, but also the silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended and incomprehensible ground that eludes us.” That there is a necessary and saving truth precisely embedded in his concealment. After all, did God not hide himself, first, in the humanity of Jesus, then in the yet greater concealment of the Eucharist? In fact, says Ratzinger, “it is only when we have experienced him as silence that we may hope to hear his speech, which proceeds out of the silence.”

And to what event is that silence most dramatically joined but in the death rattle that follows upon the terrible cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Here Christ our brother cries out, not for himself, but for the Father whose presence is now perceived as sheer everlasting absence. “After this,” asks Ratzinger, “do we still need to ask what prayer in our hour of darkness must be? 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?”

If there be a night into whose darkness no reassuring voice can reach, a door through which we are forced to go alone, then it is not the world Christ came to redeem. What the Mystery of Holy Saturday reveals is the fact that, to quote Ratzinger, “Christ (himself) strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there he is. Hell is thereby overcome … because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.”

All the dungeons of death, including those brought on by both the fear and the fact of this global pandemic, have been thrown open by the Lord of Life, whose love is so powerful as to vanquish even Hell.

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