In truth – one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is – hell.
This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ 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 is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.
Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images – which at first sight look so mythological – of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened and the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt 27:52). The door of death stands open since life – love – has dwelt in death. — Pope Benedict XVI
I gave an evening of reflection during Lent last year at a parish. It was on the meaning of the Cross. After I finished speaking, we had a period of prayer and then people left in silence. After everyone had gone, a woman who had remained came up to me after and shared with me a grace she received from God during the evening. I asked her if I could share this story.
She said because of some severe family problems when she was growing up, she learned life meant hiding from threatening situations. This pattern, she said, led her to hide as an adult, living in mistrust and inner isolation, feeling trapped inside a secret past that she has never dared to share with anyone for fear that by opening it, like Pandora’s Box, chaos would be unleashed in her life.
“But,” she said, “tonight I could see something I had never seen before. In those halls of shame that I live in, Jesus is already there with me. He sees it all. He was so quiet in there, just sitting with me, I didn’t even notice Him. He was waiting for me to recognize Him and give permission for Him to open the doors and allow the light in. I could see this as I prayed. You said Jesus descends into our personal hells to blow them open from the inside out, but with the greatest tenderness imaginable. What did you call that? [Me: The harrowing of hell] Yeah, well, I felt something break deep inside of me and I opened up. I feel I can seek help.”
Then she said, “And when you told us that Jesus’ name means ‘Yahweh rescues,’ and that that’s another way of saying ‘God is love,’ because love always rescues the lost — that idea [she paused] — I fell in love with Him.”
We ended with a brief prayer and she went home. I sat for a few minutes alone, in thanksgiving, and thought: I’ve spent 31 years of studying theology precisely to that end. So I could know how to remove stones that prevent others from seeing that Jesus, Emmanuel, is God always and already with us. Harrowing our hells with hallowing mercy.
I have never so clearly understood the meaning of 2 Cor. 5:20 as my personal mission and the mission of every Christian: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Today, Holy Saturday, we reverence God’s decent into hell in silence, as He penetrates the deepest darkness with the bright light of His immortal life and love.
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” — Eph. 5:14