God in Hell
There is nothing that happens on Holy Saturday. Unlike the previous days, the churches are quiet. Except for some few lectors and altar servers who are practicing for the Easter vigil, there is no one around. The rush to the confessional has stopped. The pabasa and the visita iglesia are over. The whole world is resting – either too tired from the long procession or waiting in anticipation for the next celebration.
Even God is quiet. Jesus has descended unto the dead, into “hell” as the Latin translation “ad infernos” aptly clarifies it.
He “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead,” as the Apostles’ Creed says.
But what is Jesus doing in hell? How can God be in hell? Is it not the place that we all try to avoid? What is Jesus doing in such an abominable space, if ever it exists?
When I was younger I heard my catechist explain it this way: Jesus descended to hell on Holy Saturday to save the righteous souls who died before his crucifixion – Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Joseph, etc. – they have been eagerly waiting for his salvation. After his death, Jesus needed to open the prison gates of Sheol to let them all out. Or, in other versions, Jesus went down to hell to preach to the sinners who are there. Thus, in life and in death, on earth and in hell, he was evangelizing others. Now, that’s a real workaholic!
But the great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthazar – a friend of Benedict XVI – presents an interesting twist to the theology of the Holy Saturday.
He says that if Jesus is really human, he also has experienced real death in an act of solidarity with all of us. When Jesus died, he really died. He was a totally isolated, disconnected from the rest of living humanity, a fully passive indifferent corpse. He is together with all the dead, one with them in the place of the dead. And like them, he also subjectively waits for his own resurrection.
What does this tell me?
First, Jesus “like the rest of us” waits for his Abba to raise him up, to vindicate him. Jesus did not resurrect by himself. Fantastic re-enactments on Easter Sunday with the Risen Jesus coming out of the tomb by himself to the tune of a majestic Alleluia chorus seemingly gives a wrong impression. He did not raise himself up. He waited and God raised him up from the dead as St. Paul says (Rom. 10: 9). This is the first profession of faith by the apostles.
The solemn silence of the Holy Saturday is an act of solidarity with those of us who are in the state of “tragic waiting” for our own resurrection which is promised but has not yet come – for healing from illness, for forgiveness of a deep hurt, for peace in a war zone, for justice long denied, for reconciliation, for compassion, for eternal life. If Jesus has waited and his God came to raise him up, there is also hope for us in our own hopelessly tragic situations.
Second, Jesus’ descent into hell is not meant to liberate souls of the just awaiting for the Messiah; that is too much work for someone who is dead. His presence in hell expresses his loving identification with sinners who abandoned God.
“Exactly in that way he disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner, who wants to be ‘damned’ apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness. God in the absolute weakness of love unfathomably in the period of non-time enters into solidarity with those damning themselves.” (Hans Urs von Balthazar)
Simply put, God goes to ‘hell’ with us if only to show the depth of His/Her love. God is with all ‘sinners’ in hell so that whatever ‘hell’ is - if ever it exists - it is something which involves the sinner’s rejection of God, not God’s rejection of the sinner. Whatever power human freedom has to reject God, it is not strong enough to prevent God from truly loving.
Yet, even if one has decided to stay away from God in what is called “hell”, this same God – in solidarity with us – still continues to offer His/Her love to the end. Meron ngang “forever”!
In the name of love, God has gone to “hell” with us! Such a deep mystery revealed in the silence of Holy Saturday.