Tag: Holy Week

Hell, the Pope, and the Cross

Another week, another manufactured press story involving Pope Francis. Did he deny that there is a hell? Did the Vatican intervene to massage his words?

Well no, almost certainly not, on both counts. But the enthusiasm with which the non-story has been lapped up suggests a hold that the idea of hell, and its perceived function within Christian doctrine, has on the imagination. Isn’t hell a big part of the whole thing? Isn’t it, moreover, a big stick waved to scare the faithful into submission?


Now, I take myself to be an orthodox Catholic: if anyone were finally to reject God’s love, then their soul, and ultimately they themself (after the resurrection) would live eternally in the absence of God’s fellowship. This is hell. It is misleading, I think, to put the issue (as did the BBC) in terms of whether hell exists. Hell is not a thing, such that it could exist, it is an absence (an absence of communion). All of this said, I am not bound as a Catholic to believe that anyone ever does finally decide against God. Indeed, I hope in God’s love and providence for universal salvation.

The point about hell, and Good Friday is the right day on which to make this point, is that its function within Christian doctrine is as that from which we are saved. Its power over us, the fear of it – these were defeated on the Cross, when God’s love showed itself as strong as death. Christianity does not think there are two equally balanced realities, good and evil, and two equally apt destinations for human beings, heaven and hell. Our attitude towards the world is the hard-won optimism of those who have spent hours at the Cross and seen there the victory of Love.

And yet, there is also a sense in which hell is seen day by day, not as an ultimate reality, but as a provisional one. Wherever God is rejected, wherever fellowship is broken, there is hell – in shop doorways, on battlefields, in lonely bedrooms and hospital wards. It is there, as it was on Calvary. Here, as there, may it not conquer.


The consequence of Mary’s ‘yes’


If today weren’t in Holy Week, it would be the feast of the Annunciation. The coming together of a celebration of the Incarnation with that of Christ’s Passion is rich matter for reflection.

You can’t have an Incarnation, a truly becoming human of God, without the death of God Incarnate, because to be human in this world is amongst other things to die. And you can’t have an Incarnation in a world damaged by domination, hatred, and envy without God Incarnate dying at our hands. The Cross is quite simply what our world does to a perfectly loving human being, which is the only kind of human being God could have become. In this sense, the Cross is a straightforward consequence of the Incarnation, of Mary’s ‘yes’.

But if the Incarnation cannot be understood properly apart from the Cross, nor can the Cross be understood apart from the Incarnation. There is a temptation to think that the Cross is redemptive because of the horrendous suffering it involves, that somehow God sees the suffering Jesus goes through and decides to spare us eternal torment because of it. A grotesque travesty often confused for orthodoxy, this view is a short distance from the view that the Cross is something God does. God demands that Jesus suffer, and brings it about. Whereas the Cross is something we do (it is something God does only in the trivial sense in that every event and action in the universe is created). It is redemptive because it is the culmination of the life of God Incarnate, the life which weds heaven to earth and offers our human family to the Father, joining us to the Father through that eternal love we call the Spirit (on the Cross, notice, Jesus ‘gives up the Spirit’). We cannot understand how the Cross saves without understanding both that death is the climax of a life, the point at which a life is offered up, and that the person who dies on the Cross is God. This is the point at which a divinely human life, and us in union with it, is offered to the Father.

God became human so that human beings might become divine – on the Cross we see God’s humanity consumated. So our divinity is born.

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.


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.

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.