Tag: Holy Week

He descended into hell

Today has an in-between feel. After the liturgical busyness of the past two days our church buildings are quiet. The office continues to be said, as though it were the heart beat of the Church, but the sacraments are not celebrated. Tabernacles lie empty; there is no holy water in the stoups.

This silence reflects the nature of the what we recall today. Not only does it demand silence, but it would be difficult to know what to say about it if it did not: a corpse lies in the tomb, the corpse of God made human. Yet somehow we want to say that in this apparently senseless end of a life there rests freedom for people far beyond the immediate earthly touch of Christ. This instinct finds expression in the Church’s belief that Christ’s soul, united to his divine person, descended into hell, and in the tradition that he preached to and released the souls of the just who had died before his coming.

he-descended

The point is one about the universality of Christ’s mission. It is for all people; the events of Easter spread out like a ripple through human history. For, in the words of the homily read at the Office of Readings today, we were not created to be slaves in the underworld.

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The Shadow of the Empty Tomb

One of the dubious advantages to having a social media presence is that you learn all kinds of things you never wanted to know. For example: today, apart from being Palm Sunday, is International Happiness Day.

I have what people younger or more American than myself would call a bone with International Happiness Day. As a sufferer from chronic, and sometimes severe, depression I really do not appreciate being told to feel happy. I have had more than my share of random passers-by telling me to ‘cheer up mate, it might never happen’ and of, better-intentioned but still crushing, pep talks from people who would never dream of telling a cancer sufferer than a more positive attitude could make everything better.

Even if my own capacity to produce happiness were more reliable, there is something morally questionable about the suggestion that happiness is an appropriate default disposition towards the world. A planet on which the Syrian people continue to suffer at the hands of multiple warring parties and where the post powerful nation on the planet may well elect a man who wants to build a wall to exclude Mexicans does not obviously warrant a smile. If I break into raucous laughter upon learning that a friend has a terminal illness then I need either a doctor or a confessional.

The culpable cheeriness of those who haven’t noticed that the world is a mess is closely related to a certain kind of glib optimism, Terry Eagleton’s target in his excellent Hope Without Optimism. Of the many problems with this upbeat creed is its incapacity to take seriously the reality and indelibility of human misery. If the bad is immediately and trivially outweighed by the good, or at least due to be swept away from sight or memory by the forward march of History, then efforts to improve our present lot are unlikely to be a priority.

This disturbingly positive attitude is very different from the joy that is taken to characterise Christian hope. This does not consist in obedience to an imperative to always look on the bright side of life. The joyful Christian has a quiet confidence that ultimate victory belongs to God in Christ. She has no idea, given the current state of the world, how this could possibly turn out to be the case, but she believes that the one Jesus calls ‘Father’ brought about the empty tomb after the Cross. Agreeing with Karl Barth that,

‘The No is not the last and highest truth, but the call from home which comes in answer to our asking for God in the world.’  (The Word of God and the Word of Man)

she does not assume that this will make everything OK. She does, however, believe that history is ultimately in the hands of Love. This changes her understanding of everything, whilst making no perceivable difference.

This attitude is present throughout the liturgy for Holy Week; in fact we would hardly be keeping the week were it not for it. The news of the resurrection is the lens through which we view the passion and death of Jesus. Palm Sunday, already shot through with the tension of triumph and coming tragedy, is a Sunday. The week begins, as does every week, with the memorial of the Lord’s resurrection. The palm procession is to an altar, where the sacramental presence of the Risen Lord will be celebrated. In the evening, the Church will sing at vespers: ‘It is written: “I will strike the shepherd down and the sheep of his flock will be scattered.” But after my resurrection I will go before you into Galilee; there you will see me, said the Lord’.

The daily Eucharist – an action which flows from the resurrection as much as the Last Supper – contextualises the journey to the Cross through the week within the wider story of God’s triumph. On Good Friday, when there is no Mass, the priest nonetheless wears a chasuble, the garment of the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The day is not a collective funeral, but a solemn celebration. The passion is read from the Fourth Gospel, for which the Cross is Jesus’ ‘hour’, the moment where he reigns in triumph, and over which he is sublimely in control. Without the raw humanity of the synoptics the impression we would get from this story would be at best misleading, at worse docetic. In combination, they capture the essence of the Christian faith. Whilst the wood of the Cross is venerated, the chants speak of the resurrection. On Holy Saturday, meanwhile, our waiting is punctuated with an account of the victorious Christ harrowing hell.

There is a converse to the subtle thread of good news running through these days. If the Risen Christ is already present in our commemoration of the passion, the resurrection does not undo the reality of Christ’s suffering, or the history (one hesitates to speak of ‘reality’) of sin. I find that the rites of the Easter Vigil show, in ways words could never say, how Christianity can dare to speak of hope in a world like ours. One of the first actions performed with the new paschal candle is to pierce it with incense grains in memory of Christ’s wounds. The exsultet sings of the slaying of Christ the paschal lamb, and is prepared to talk of the felix culpa that brought this about: yet the tone is festal. And this is as it should be, the Risen Christ still has his wounds.

Death is indeed swallowed up in victory, but the scars remain.