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Holy Week

Holy Saturday: Did Jesus Suffer the Pains of Hell?

Saturday, April 23, 2011 A.D. | Author Jake Tawney
NB:  After the disagreement (though not quite unanimous) that my last post generated, I hesitated briefly on this next one.  Every time I bring up von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday thesis, it generates quite a bit of conversation.  Nevertheless, I find it very useful on this third, and perhaps most mysterious day of the Sacred Triduum.  Please know that I am not unaware of the theological controversy surrounding this thesis.
In my mind, this is an example of a deep theological question that warrants some discussion.   The publication First Things did a very nice job of presenting both sides of this argument: Alyssa Pitstick representing the traditional position, and Fr. Edward Oakes defending Balthasar (or rather defending the position that Balthasar was not heretical in his claims).  For my own part, I think Balthasar’s thoughts are worth pondering, and I think Fr. Oakes is correct at least in his assessment that Balthasar is not wading in heresy in his claims.
While I do not have time, space, or expertise to present this entire debate, I would reference the readers to the series of article by Pitstick and Oakes in First Things.  Without further adieu …
The twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a work entitled Mysterium Paschale in which he attempts to come to grips with the experience of Christ on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  The thesis of the book is that Christ, in order to redeem man from the punishment of sin, must take on sin and all of its consequences and must rise from those consequences on Easter in his return to the Father.
The most striking chapter of the book, and certainly the one that has received the most attention, is his description of Holy Saturday.  For Balthasar the experience of Holy Saturday is preeminently about the credal phrase descendit ad inferna (Christ’s descent into Hell).  While belief in the statement is a matter of dogmatic obedience, the Church has not been clear on exactly what Christ’s going to Hell entailed.  Balthasar’s thesis hinges on two given facts.  First, in order to redeem man Christ must take on the penalty of death merited by man’s sin.  Second, the penalty for sin is not just death of the body, but also death of the soul.
The experience of Hell is that of abandonment by God.  More precisely, the soul has chosen to separate itself from God in the very act of sin.  God is both our efficient and final cause, so eternity spent in the absence of this God is greater than any suffering of which we can conceive, and certainly greater than any physical suffering.
Because Christ in his saving act must go through the entire experience of death, with the eventual result of its conquering, he must not only suffer and die a bodily death, but also must suffer a spiritual death, a death that is the complete abandonment by God.  The whole idea becomes more profound when we consider that Jesus is God.  As such, his “closeness” to the Father is perfect, and certainly much more intense than our own relationship with the Father.  While two separate Trinitarian Persons, they are in fact one God.  In this sense, Christ has a much greater loss when he is abandoned by the Father in Hell than any non-divine man could experience.  (Note that only in a Trinitarian theology can we even begin to grapple with the idea of God being abandoned by God.)
Another way of looking at this is that Jesus, as true man, must experience the full depth and breadth of the human condition, and as perfect man will experience this depth and breadth in a manner more perfect than the rest of us.  The human condition in its positive aspect is an original union with God, of which Jesus experiences in a far more perfect manner than we.  In its negative aspect, the human condition is the abandonment of God in death caused by both original and personal sin, a death that only begins with the destruction of the body, but continues in the destruction of the soul in every way except its annihilation.  Jesus, as perfect man, experiences the depths of Hell in a manner more perfectly terrible than even the souls of the damned.
As Christians, we have become accustomed to thinking about the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday.  On Holy Saturday, we at times become a bit more human-centered, perhaps reflecting on the emptiness and confusion the disciples would have felt as people who did not yet fully understand the significance of the prior day’s events.  Perhaps, however, we should keep our gaze on Christ, knowing that the sufferings he is experiencing today are infinitely greater than those of Good Friday.  The height of his Good Friday sufferings occurs in his shout from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!”  This is the beginning of His Hell, and today is a long and arduous experience of this abandonment – and all of this He did for us.
Note:  The traditional view on the matter comes from 1 Peter 3:19 and describes Christ preaching to the souls in prison.  Balthasar notes that the tense in this and other passages is mysteriously passive, as if the preaching occurred simply by the event of the descent.  Of course, the second person of the Trinity is the Word, so any action is simultaneously a “speaking” of sorts.  A similar “preaching” occurred to the souls of the living in his very act on the Cross.  The point is that Balthasar’s thesis in no way contradicts the traditional view.
*****UPDATE*****

Thanks, Mark, for drawing my attention to one of Pope Benedict’s responses to his unprecedented Q&A on Italian TV this Good Friday:

Q. Holy Father, the next question is on the theme of Jesus’ death and resurrection and comes from Italy. I will read it to you: “Your Holiness, what is Jesus doing in the time between His death and resurrection? Seeing that in reciting the Creed it says that Jesus, after His death, descended into Hell, should we think that that will also happen to us, after death, before going to heaven?”

A. First of all, this descent of Jesus’ soul should not be imagined as a geographical or a spatial trip, from one continent to another. It is the soul’s journey. We have to remember that Jesus’ soul always touches the Father, it is always in contact with the Father but, at the same time, this human soul extends to the very borders of the human being. In this sense it goes into the depths, into the lost places, to where all who do not arrive at their life’s goal go, thus transcending the continents of the past. This word about the Lord’s descent into Hell mainly means that Jesus reaches even the past, that the effectiveness of the Redemption does not begin in the year 0 or 30, but also goes to the past, embraces the past, all men and women of all time. The Church Fathers say, with a very beautiful image, that Jesus takes Adam and Eve, that is, humanity, by the hand and guides them forward, guides them on high. He thus creates access to God because humanity, on its own cannot arrive at God’s level. He himself, being man, can take humanity by the hand and open the access. To what? To the reality we call Heaven. So this descent into Hell, that is, into the depth of the human being, into humanity’s past, is an essential part of Jesus’ mission, of His mission as Redeemer, and does not apply to us. Our lives are different. We are already redeemed by the Lord and we arrive before the Judge, after our death, under Jesus’ gaze. On one had, this gaze will be purifying: I think that all of us, in greater or lesser measure, are in need of purification. Jesus’ gaze purifies us, thus making us capable of living with God, of living with the Saints, and above all of living in communion with those dear to us who have preceded us.

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Lord, awaken in us the desire for you!

I believe history will look back on the pontificate of Pope Benedict not as a footnoted successor of Saint John Paul II, but as one of the greatest popes.  He has a brilliant mind and a gifted capacity for distilling a lifetime of study, prayer and reflection in simple terms.  Following is Pope Benedict’s homily from the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  Continuing on this morning’s theme of God’s desire for us and how “driven by love, God has set out towards us”, Benedict begins with Jesus’ desire to draw us to Himself.  But what about us?  Do we desire Him?  Have we become a people of unbelief and distance from God?

HOMILY OF POPE BENEDICT XVI
HOLY THURSDAY EVENING MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
BASILICA OF ST JOHN LATERAN
21 APRIL 2011


Dear Brothers and Sisters!

“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk 22:15). With these words Jesus began the celebration of his final meal and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Jesus approached that hour with eager desire. In his heart he awaited the moment when he would give himself to his own under the appearance of bread and wine. He awaited that moment which would in some sense be the true messianic wedding feast: when he would transform the gifts of this world and become one with his own, so as to transform them and thus inaugurate the transformation of the world. In this eager desire of Jesus we can recognize the desire of God himself – his expectant love for mankind, for his creation. A love which awaits the moment of union, a love which wants to draw mankind to itself and thereby fulfil the desire of all creation, for creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:19). Jesus desires us, he awaits us. But what about ourselves? Do we really desire him? Are we anxious to meet him? Do we desire to encounter him, to become one with him, to receive the gifts he offers us in the Holy Eucharist? Or are we indifferent, distracted, busy about other things? From Jesus’ banquet parables we realize that he knows all about empty places at table, invitations refused, lack of interest in him and his closeness. For us, the empty places at the table of the Lord’s wedding feast, whether excusable or not, are no longer a parable but a reality, in those very countries to which he had revealed his closeness in a special way. Jesus also knew about guests who come to the banquet without being robed in the wedding garment – they come not to rejoice in his presence but merely out of habit, since their hearts are elsewhere. In one of his homilies Saint Gregory the Great asks: Who are these people who enter without the wedding garment? What is this garment and how does one acquire it? He replies that those who are invited and enter do in some way have faith. It is faith which opens the door to them. But they lack the wedding garment of love. Those who do not live their faith as love are not ready for the banquet and are cast out. Eucharistic communion requires faith, but faith requires love; otherwise, even as faith, it is dead.


From all four Gospels we know that Jesus’ final meal before his passion was also a teaching moment. Once again, Jesus urgently set forth the heart of his message. Word and sacrament, message and gift are inseparably linked. Yet at his final meal, more than anything else, Jesus prayed. Matthew, Mark and Luke use two words in describing Jesus’ prayer at the culmination of the meal:“eucharístesas” and “eulógesas” – the verbs “to give thanks” and “to bless”. The upward movement of thanking and the downward movement of blessing go together. The words of transubstantiation are part of this prayer of Jesus. They are themselves words of prayer. Jesus turns his suffering into prayer, into an offering to the Father for the sake of mankind. This transformation of his suffering into love has the power to transform the gifts in which he now gives himself. He gives those gifts to us, so that we, and our world, may be transformed. The ultimate purpose of Eucharistic transformation is our own transformation in communion with Christ. The Eucharist is directed to the new man, the new world, which can only come about from God, through the ministry of God’s Servant.
From Luke, and especially from John, we know that Jesus, during the Last Supper, also prayed to the Father – prayers which also contain a plea to his disciples of that time and of all times. Here I would simply like to take one of these which, as John tells us, Jesus repeated four times in his Priestly Prayer. How deeply it must have concerned him! It remains his constant prayer to the Father on our behalf: the prayer for unity. Jesus explicitly states that this prayer is not meant simply for the disciples then present, but for all who would believe in him (cf. Jn 17:20). He prays that all may be one “as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Christian unity can exist only if Christians are deeply united to him, to Jesus. Faith and love for Jesus, faith in his being one with the Father and openness to becoming one with him, are essential. This unity, then, is not something purely interior or mystical. It must become visible, so visible as to prove before the world that Jesus was sent by the Father. Consequently, Jesus’ prayer has an underlying Eucharistic meaning which Paul clearly brings out in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16ff.). With the Eucharist, the Church is born. All of us eat the one bread and receive the one body of the Lord; this means that he opens each of us up to something above and beyond us. He makes all of us one. The Eucharist is the mystery of the profound closeness and communion of each individual with the Lord and, at the same time, of visible union between all. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. It reaches the very mystery of the Trinity and thus creates visible unity. Let me say it again: it is an extremely personal encounter with the Lord and yet never simply an act of individual piety. Of necessity, we celebrate it together. In each community the Lord is totally present. Yet in all the communities he is but one. Hence the words “una cum Papa nostro et cum episcopo nostro” are a requisite part of the Church’s Eucharistic Prayer. These words are not an addendum of sorts, but a necessary expression of what the Eucharist really is. Furthermore, we mention the Pope and the Bishop by name: unity is something utterly concrete, it has names. In this way unity becomes visible; it becomes a sign for the world and a concrete criterion for ourselves.

Saint Luke has preserved for us one concrete element of Jesus’ prayer for unity: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:31). Today we are once more painfully aware that Satan has been permitted to sift the disciples before the whole world. And we know that Jesus prays for the faith of Peter and his successors. We know that Peter, who walks towards the Lord upon the stormy waters of history and is in danger of sinking, is sustained ever anew by the Lord’s hand and guided over the waves. But Jesus continues with a prediction and a mandate. “When you have turned again…”. Every human being, save Mary, has constant need of conversion. Jesus tells Peter beforehand of his coming betrayal and conversion. But what did Peter need to be converted from? When first called, terrified by the Lord’s divine power and his own weakness, Peter had said: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). In the light of the Lord, he recognizes his own inadequacy. Precisely in this way, in the humility of one who knows that he is a sinner, is he called. He must discover this humility ever anew. At Caesarea Philippi Peter could not accept that Jesus would have to suffer and be crucified: it did not fit his image of God and the Messiah. In the Upper Room he did not want Jesus to wash his feet: it did not fit his image of the dignity of the Master. In the Garden of Olives he wielded his sword. He wanted to show his courage. Yet before the servant girl he declared that he did not know Jesus. At the time he considered it a little lie which would let him stay close to Jesus. All his heroism collapsed in a shabby bid to be at the centre of things. We too, all of us, need to learn again to accept God and Jesus Christ as he is, and not the way we want him to be. We too find it hard to accept that he bound himself to the limitations of his Church and her ministers. We too do not want to accept that he is powerless in this world. We too find excuses when being his disciples starts becoming too costly, too dangerous. All of us need the conversion which enables us to accept Jesus in his reality as God and man. We need the humility of the disciple who follows the will of his Master. Tonight we want to ask Jesus to look to us, as with kindly eyes he looked to Peter when the time was right, and to convert us.

After Peter was converted, he was called to strengthen his brethren. It is not irrelevant that this task was entrusted to him in the Upper Room. The ministry of unity has its visible place in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Dear friends, it is a great consolation for the Pope to know that at each Eucharistic celebration everyone prays for him, and that our prayer is joined to the Lord’s prayer for Peter. Only by the prayer of the Lord and of the Church can the Pope fulfil his task of strengthening his brethren – of feeding the flock of Christ and of becoming the guarantor of that unity which becomes a visible witness to the mission which Jesus received from the Father.

“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you”. Lord, you desire us, you desire me. You eagerly desire to share yourself with us in the Holy Eucharist, to be one with us. Lord, awaken in us the desire for you. Strengthen us in unity with you and with one another. Grant unity to your Church, so that the world may believe. Amen.

Abp. Dolan: A Blessed Holy Week

Another gem from the archbishop of New York on well-placed faith.  Posted on his blog , Archbishop Dolan once again demonstrates his remarkable gift of humor, simple, to the point, wanna-give-the-guy-a-hug delivery.  Other than his poor choice of the word “lax” in characterizing some bishops complicity in the abuse scandal, he aptly directs us to put trust in the Lord, not in the hierarchy.  Never with Jesus, but inevitably we will be disappointed by the latter.  Pretty funny story thrown in there too.

A Blessed Holy Week
Let’s see now:  we’ve got a Sunday night series on one of the most corrupt and tawdry families in Church history, the Borgias, with popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests, all part of this big, happy family; we’ve heard non-stop for a decade about abusive priests, (albeit a small minority) and lax bishops who reassigned them; we’ve got front page stories of priests who embezzled money from their parishes; and I saw one not long ago about a priest arrested for DUI.

Yes, all this is scandalous, sinful, sickening, and criminal.

But, it is not new.

Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, brothers are human.

That means, we are sinners.

Granted, when one of us falls, it hurts and shocks more.  People rightly expect their spiritual leaders to practice what we preach.  When we don’t, we’re hypocrites.  And we know what Jesus thought about hypocrites.

But, this is not new.

If you think it worse today than in the past, I ask you to consider the solemn days we will observe next week, Holy Week:  Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

Within an hour or so after Jesus had ordained His very first bishops and priests — the twelve apostles — what happened?  They fell asleep when He asked them to pray with Him; one betrayed Him for thirty silver coins; one — the first Pope — denied three times even knowing Him; and all but one, the youngest, ran away scared at the time He most needed them.  That lonely loyal one, St. John, was there with our blessed Mother at the foot of the cross on a hill called Calvary on a Friday strangely called “good.”

Not a very good start for bishops and priests.  Within a few hours after their ordination, 11/12 had abandoned Him.  That’s a worse record than even the Mets!

What’s the point?  That we should tolerate and overlook the sins and vices of the clergy?  Absolutely not!  Or, worse, that we priests and bishops should stop seeking the heroic virtue, holiness, and perfection called for by Jesus?  Never!

The point is that, if the life, vigor, holiness, and efficacy of the Church depended only upon the virtue of priests and bishops, it would have been dead-on-arrival, not surviving that afternoon when the sun hid in shame and the earth shuddered in sadness.

Our faith is not in popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, or even in monsignors.  Nope:  our faith is only in Jesus.  He and He alone will never let us down; He will never sin; He and He alone will never break a promise; He and He alone deserves our absolute trust and confidence.

That’s why it’s especially tragic when someone leaves Jesus and His Church because of a sin, scandal, or slight from a priest or bishop.  If your faith depended on us, it was misplaced to begin with.  We priests and bishops might represent Jesus and shepherd His Church, however awkwardly — but we are not Jesus and His Church.

One of the more moving, sad, yet, usually “sacramental” duties I have as a bishop is to meet at times with victim survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, and on occasion their families.  Some of them tell me they have left the Church, they hate the Church, they have lost their faith.  Most of them, though, tell me that, as shattered, sickened, and angry as they may be, nobody, nowhere, nohow is going to take their faith away!  These are an inspiration to me.

The wife of one victim once graciously said to me, “Archbishop, you have helped me regain my faith in the Church!  I am putting my trust in you!”

I replied, “I’m flattered and grateful, but, please, don’t put absolute confidence in me.  I’ll work everyday to earn and keep your trust, and pray daily I’ll never, ever let you down, but, believe me, sooner-or-later, sadly, I’m afraid I will let you down and disappoint you.  Please, put your total faith and trust only in Jesus!  Anything else is idolatry!”

Maybe, maybe there’s a decent reason for leaving the Church.  I’ve never heard one, but a lot of people apparently think they have good cause, since “ex-Catholics” sadly number in the millions.

However, leaving because of something a priest or bishop may have done or not done is surely not a decent reason.

When I was about six-or-seven, I spent Saturday night with my grandpa and grandma, “Nonnie” and “Pata.”  On Sunday morning, we got ready for Mass.  Pata wasn’t budging from his EZ chair with the sports page and a second cup of coffee.

“Let’s go, Dad! (that’s what Nonnie called him),” yells Nonnie.  “We’ll be late for Mass.”

“I’m not going.  I can’t stand that new priest, Father McCarthy,” replies Pata.

“Oh, yeah,” responds Nonnie.  “You can’t stand the new bartender up at Nick’s, either, but that sure doesn’t seem to keep you from going up there!  Get moving!”

All three of us went to Mass . . .

Frank Sheed, that great Catholic lay theologian of last century, expressed it a bit more eloquently than Nonnie:  “We are not baptized into the hierarchy; we do not receive the cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope.  Christ is the point.  I, myself, admire the present pope, but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the Church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing that a pope, a bishop, a priest could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church (although I might well wish that they would).”

Pray for us bishops and priests, please.  We’re sorry when we hurt you.  We must try harder to conform our lives to Jesus.  But don’t ever let our sins drive you away.

A blessed Holy Week!


Hosanna to the Son of David

It was the month of Nisan.  The Book of Exodus ordered that in this month the Paschal Lamb was to be selected, and four days later was to be taken to the place where it was to be sacrificed.  On Palm Sunday, the Lamb was chosen by popular acclaim in Jerusalem; on Good Friday He was sacrificed.

As one looks in the ancient sculptured slabs of Assyria and Babylon, the murals of Egypt, the tombs of the Persians, and the scrolls of the Roman columns, one is struck by the majesty of kings riding in triumph on horses or chariots, and sometimes over the prostrate bodies of their foes.  In contrast to this, here is One Who comes triumphant upon an ass.  How Pilate, if he was looking out of his fortress that Sunday, must have been amused by the ridiculous spectacle of a man being proclaimed as a King, and yet seated on the beast that was the symbol of the outcast–a fitting vehicle for one riding into the jaws of death!

The acclaim of the people was another acknowledgment of His Divinity.  Many took off their garments and spread them before Him; others cut down boughs from the olive trees and palm branches and strewed them on the way.  The Apocalypse speaks of a great multitude standing before the Throne of the Lamb with palms of victory in their hands.  Here the palms, so often used throughout their history to signify victory, as when Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem, witnessed to His victory–even before He was momentarily vanquished.
+Fulton Sheen from The Life of Christ