Chapter 7

The Descent to the Dead

After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathaea claimed the body from Pilate. He took him down from the cross, and wrapped him in a linen sheet, laid him in a tomb cut out of the rock, and then rolled a stone against the entrance. The place was noted by some women followers of Jesus.

And then there was a complete silence for two days - the remainder of the Friday and the whole Sabbath Saturday. The matter was closed, and a shock of emptiness, a cold wind of finality, confronted the community. "Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, how he was cut off from the world of living men, stricken to the death for my people's transgression? He was assigned a grave with the wicked, a burial-place among the refuse of mankind, though he had done no violence and spoken no word of treachery" (Isaiah 53:8-9). Admittedly the grave of Jesus was not situated in such degraded precincts, but the immediate memory of the man was associated with such company. Once a stone is dropped into a lake it disappears from view, and its site of entry into the depths is marked by a series of ripples that spread out and are soon dissipated in the expanse of water. So likewise does the life of Christ fade out on those two silent days, when the world had to return to its routine workings in the absence of a cherished leader and inspired teacher. But where was the presence of Jesus during this period of dark silence, of unuttered despair? He was in the immediate afterlife state, and descending not merely to the dead but to the silent, desolate region which is called hell.

In the infernal realm there are to be found the souls of the derelict, those who have wasted their lives in self-indulgence, those who have contributed nothing to the good of their fellow creatures, those who have battened on society and acted destructively in their personal relationships. They are out in the cold, isolated and in despair, beyond reach of any help because they are closed in on themselves, unable and unwilling to give anything of themselves even to the extent of welcoming another creature to their inner being. But even more terrible than those derelict entities is the malign psychic current that circulates around them. It is like a howling wind on a frosty night, penetrating the bones to the very marrow, like a pungent odour permeating the depths of the psyche. The darkness of desolation experienced on a temporal level by those suffering from depression in our world is the atmosphere into which the entities in hell move and exist. Indeed, this darkness is an emanation of undiluted evil, merited by those enclosed in the inferno of isolation, and assumed by the saintly ones who experience the dark night of the spirit as part of their work for the redemption of the world.

The dead whom Jesus visited comprised the sluggish, unaware ones, those who mill around in the blue night of death in the noiseless tumult of the anguished, who groan in hopeless terror at the onslaughts of destructive power wielded by the demonic forces. These control the realm of hell, and seek assiduously to extend their domain by infiltrating the ranks of the uncommitted, those of little faith who move irresolutely at the behest of any plausible outside force. There is, furthermore, a psychic osmosis between the living and the dead; indeed, there is only one life, and what we call death is, in fact, a transition zone, a gateway to a further experience of consciousness, one in which bodily limitation is at an end and the essence of the soul laid bare in its unclouded sensitivity. Jesus promised the penitent criminal crucified alongside him a sharing of paradise that very day, and yet after his death he descended to the nether regions instead of ascending to the heavenly ones. In fact Jesus was in a state of paradisical joy after his death, paradise in this respect being pictured as an oasis of fertility in the midst of a desert, comparable to the world of Adam and Eve before they fell into sin and separation by forfeiting the unending knowledge of God by their selfish desire for personal advancement. Jesus' personal suffering no doubt ended with his noble death on the cross, after which a peace of holiness came upon him. In that state of suffused joy he descended into the world of the dead as an action of outflowing love to its denizens; he also proclaimed his sovereignty over that region, so often forgotten and condemned to darkness.

St Paul, in the famous passage of Philippians 2:5-11, traces the descent of Christ, though divine, into the nothingness of the human condition, assuming the nature of a slave, humbling himself even to the obedience of accepting death on a cross. Therefore God has raised him to the heights, bestowing on him a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow - in heaven, on earth, and in the depths - and every tongue confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. But the glorious name of Jesus is not given as an honorary title; it is attained by Jesus' intimate involvement in all aspects of the creation. By him were all things made - as the creative Word of the Father - yet he is also the Lamb of God sacrificed before the foundation of the world. He is both the resurrected Lord and the perpetual victim of the world's neglect and cruelty. He will remain in an agony of cosmic proportion until the end of the world, until all the creation comes to accept his love of its own accord; until the wills of all rational creatures turn in obedience to him by whom they all were fashioned.

The work of Jesus among the dead to whom he descends in humble solicitude is variously interpreted by the believer. To some he is a messenger, an angel in actual presence, who brings the news of salvation to the saints who preceded him - for instance, the prophets of the Old Testament era. He frees them by bestowing on them the light of God's full grace. To others he is portrayed as a mighty warrior grappling with the powers of darkness and utterly vanquishing them to their destruction, a process popularly described as the harrowing of hell. It was a prominent theme in popular medieval devotion. His power triumphs over all evil, and brings a new dispensation to the inhabitants of the underworld. This approach appeals mightily to those who exult in the concept of spiritual warfare ending in the victory of the forces of light over those of darkness, so that good completely annihilates evil. While this is unexceptionable enough as a general principle, it is all too easily transposed without modification into the world we inhabit, and the attitude it engenders can be divisive and dangerously judgemental. In this way all those who deviate from an accepted pattern of piety, who question the assumptions of an established religion, are associated with the works of darkness, the company of demonic entities that govern the material world: those who are not explicitly with us are against us. The outcome of such a categorical attitude is a demand for justice that finds its end in persecution and excommunication. Separated from the body of the faithful, the dissident elements can be eradicated in slow, calculated steps and then completely destroyed.

This is indeed the poisonous fruit of the alignment of spiritual authority with physical power. The history of the world's major religions bears a sad testimony of worldly self-seeking at different periods; they have all at times succumbed to the temptation of colluding with prevailing political forces in an attempt to establish their own domination of the local scene. The plausible intention of asserting its God-given influence not only excuses this collaboration but actually justifies it, at least in their own eyes. True spiritual authority walks humbly with the unrighteous world in the hope of transfiguring it into something of the measure of Christ. Once it falls into the temptation of lowering its sights to that of the world around it, it becomes as debased as that world to the extent of attaining a parity with the forces of evil. Thus Jesus mixed with the whole range of human nature during his ministry on earth: all those who came to him in openness of heart he released from the shackles of material desire to an encounter with their true nature as sons of God. But he himself remained uncorrupted despite the moral disorder around him, because the Spirit of God infused him and flowed from him as a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life, as is described in John 4:14. The power of the Holy Spirit prevents a person falling victim to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil - in this context the three are in fact one. The powers of this world, especially political power, act insidiously to debase the aspiration of the human spirit until it becomes so involved with the forces of desire that it loses the vision of eternal life. Well did Jesus rebuke James and John when they volunteered to call down fire, in the manner of Elijah, on the people of a Samaritan village who would not receive them on their way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56). Conversion that is real responds through love to God, a love that banishes all fear, even the fear of personal annihilation. In other words, love acts even to its own eclipse: as is said by St John Baptist in regard to his relationship with Jesus, "As he grows greater, I must grow less" (John 3:30).

This was Jesus' great work in the world of the dead: to give of himself to the faceless multitude so that they might know the first promise of resurrection. He claimed his own domain by entering it at its lowest level, in a way previously shown in the washing of the feet of the disciples shortly before the agony commenced in its full intensity. He came in love to embrace all those who would receive him, whether in the world of matter or in the world beyond the portal of death. This world is shadowy and yet in psychic continuity with our past aspirations, our present attitudes, and our future endeavours. Love cannot inflict itself on another; it can simply give itself in humble generosity. He stands at the door of the soul and knocks; if anyone hears his voice and opens the door, he will come in and sit down to supper with him. But the invitation is ours, not his. Furthermore, the hell that Jesus enters in pure love is not confined to the afterlife. On the contrary, it is a very real ingredient of our present situation until the time comes when we are sufficiently aware to appreciate him and acknowledge him in thankfulness.

He is the nameless presence alongside all those who are suddenly cast down into the darkness of loneliness and foreboding as disaster strikes in everyday life: the person suddenly bereaved of that which made his life tolerable, indeed meaningful, and especially the one suddenly afflicted by incapacitating illness. After the initial shock has been faced and absorbed, the spark of hope flickers inwardly. It leads us to a faith which enables us to act according to the instructions of a source beyond our own cognition. He is that spark within that ignites the hopes he is the faith that leads us on the uncharted path through darkness to ultimate light, a light far more radiant than the light of reason at its most brilliant. Faith acts, whereas belief rests comfortably in an intellectual environment. In this life we do indeed "see through a glass darkly", recognizing only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but when we act according to his light within us, we are moving to that time when we shall see face to face. Christ is the master of our darkness, just as he is also the master of the underworld. What was previously the domain of the powers of darkness has now been decisively claimed by the forces of light. This does not mean that God has at any time abdicated his dominion of the infernal realms, but that, in identifying himself with all that suffers in them, he asserts an authority that includes even the demonic forces that so often appear to rule our world no less than the lower regions of the world of the life to come.

His dominion is not a triumphal one, nor are the forces of darkness summarily banished. His kingdom is not of this world that we know only too well; it is a heavenly kingdom. He brings heaven to earth, light to darkness, by his perpetual self-sacrifice. Just as the bread of the Eucharist is broken into small fragments to nourish all the communicants, so he is eternally broken, to the end that all who receive him may perceive the light of God even when they are immersed in the cloud of darkness. Christ, in other words, comes to his own - who are all created things, the dark no less than the light - as a lover, not a conqueror. He does not lay siege to the powers of darkness until they fall, as did Jerusalem and the Holy Temple to the Babylonians in the time of Jeremiah. He offers himself as the perpetual eucharistic sacrifice, whose broken body and flowing blood nourish all who will receive him, to the world of becoming until that far-off day when every blade of grass will have been redeemed, every recalcitrant heart turned into an organ of flesh that flows out in love to all its fellows. This vision looks in hope to the salvation of all the universe; it asserts that nothing God has made will ever be finally rejected; it proclaims that the presence of God in even the most evil person or lethal organism will in the end be its means of redemption from the chaos of disintegration and annihilation. The terrible division between the blessed and the damned, defined unequivocally in many of the sayings of Jesus, so that the latter are doomed to eternal rejection, is not denied by this statement: on a short-term basis the law of cause and effect acts relentlessly and cannot be altered to suit ourselves. But the love of the crucified, degraded Christ acts even to transcend this cosmic law, the moral expression of which is mirrored in the Law of the Old Testament. The man Jesus who uttered the words of terrible judgement when he was alive in the flesh has himself grown to a greater perfection through the experience of suffering and death: Gethsemane and Calvary have opened even his compassion to the full tragedy of the human situation. No one is ultimately beyond healing, so much are we all parts of one body. This was the great work that God the Son - in the body of a humble, almost anonymous, first-century Palestinian Jew - came to achieve.

Jesus was indeed a great spiritual teacher, but his words form part of an ongoing tradition that is called "the ageless wisdom" or "the perennial philosophy". What marks him out as distinct from the other holy men of human history is his participation in the darkness of hell, and his power to transfigure even that darkness into the light of sanctity by the action of pure love. But just as the light has never been mastered by the darkness, so the darkness has never allowed itself to be illuminated by the light. The cosmic conflict proceeds; whoever uses force in the battle on the side of the light simply increases the intensity of the darkness. Love alone can penetrate the dense barrier of darkness and bring a ray of light into it as an earnest of its transfiguration. For God created the dark as well as the light, "I am the Lord, there is no other; I make the light, I create darkness, author alike of prosperity and trouble. I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7). God is the first cause of all that is, but by the freedom of choice, a consequence of free will, he has given his rational creatures the ability to use or misuse the creation. The element of choice illuminates the allegory of the Fall in Genesis 3, and is a constant accompaniment of all subsequent human striving - the human, no doubt, sharing a psychic osmosis with the intermediate angelic hierarchy with its fallen demonic counterpart. Nevertheless, the ultimate responsibility for all things is God's, and on this realization we can rest securely in his love, knowing that he is not remote from his creation. The witness of the world's saints throughout the ages underlines this divine concern, which in Jesus is made fully incarnate and indeed available to all modalities of experience, whether in this world or the life beyond death. God in Christ bore the whole human situation, and in him there is a promise of healing for all those who are open to his undemanding love.

The situation is beautifully expressed in George Herbert's poem Love:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
  Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
  From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
  If I lack'd anything.
"A guest", I answere'd, "worthy to be here."
  Love said, "You shall be he".
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
  I cannot look on Thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
  "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "Who bore the blame?"
  "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says, Love, "and taste my meat."
  So I did sit and eat.

In another context William Blake in his poem The Little Black Boy also sees the primacy of love as the testing experience:

Look at the rising sun: there God does live,
  And gives His light, and gives His heat away,
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
  Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space,
  That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
  Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear,
  The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice,
Saying, "Come out from the grove, my love and care
  And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice".

This love acts to bring us to perfection, and in so doing condemns itself to a death which is also the gateway to a life that knows no ending. But it is a hard thing to bear the love of God: our innate pride sheers off from the divine encounter, for we are not prepared to lay ourselves completely open to a force beyond our understanding. What can be understood can to some measure be controlled, and in the life of the present world this alone we will accept. But in the ultimate concerns of life and death our control slips unless it is infused by a God-given strength, a strength Jesus drew on during the blinding period of his passion. Like the guest in George Herbert's poem we too are overwhelmed by our unwholesomeness, that so easily assumes the magnitude of a total worthlessness in the face of God. And yet this attitude is paradoxically a morbid self indulgence, an inverted form of egoism. We have in fact to assume the stature of a little child, oblivious of considerations both of worth and power, before God's kingdom opens up to receive us. At this juncture Jesus shows us the way of divine darkness in the face of the mystery of an all-powerful God who mourns perpetually for his fallen children, seeking to reach and redeem them with a love that never fails but can never assert itself against their will.

The Father mourns the agony of the Son, not only during the event of the passion, but throughout the entire history of creation: the Son, by whom all things are made, gives himself in unremitting love to his creatures; they merely trample on the pearls he bestows and then turn to tear him to pieces. This apparently never-ending sequence is not so much one of sheer malice as of uncomprehending unawareness, of negligent carelessness. It is like the child who dismembers the insect, torments the domestic pets, tramples on the flowers of the garden, almost to demonstrate his mastery over them and to assert his strength. Later in life, in the silent recollection of a dark night, with the winds of tragedy blowing in at the windows of his little house, he may reflect ruefully on his destructiveness, but then it is too late to undo the damage caused in the past. Yet did not the One on the cross cry out, "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34)! God's anguish for his creatures, the pathos he feels for them in their wilful destructiveness that has spoiled the natural order, that has thwarted the magnificent future he had in mind for them, is movingly expressed in much of the Old Testament narrative. The Book of Hosea especially expounds the theme of God's love for his unfaithful people - a love that can never wane, for all true love is eternal - relating how he punishes them by the ultimate law of cause and effect in order to inculcate in them the spirit of faithfulness, how they repent half heartedly only to apostasize once more, and how in the end they are promised forgiveness as a gift of pure mercy.

In the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Mark 12:1-9), the father sends his beloved son to collect his share of the produce from the intransigent tenants, who have repeatedly manhandled the servants he had previously despatched to carry out this work, the servants in this context being the prophets whom the chosen people disregarded and assaulted. But instead of honouring the son and obeying his injunction, they conspire to kill him so that they themselves may obtain the inheritance. This is the measure of gratitude God is shown by those he has created - and yet the work of creation must continue. The Son in his pain seems to be separated from his Father by a limitless gulf: on the cross he cries out in agony to the God who appears to have left him in the lurch in his moment of greatest need. His terrible cry is more than a purely personal lament, a heartrending plea for relief from his suffering. It is also a pathetic yearning that the eyes of the hostile crowd may be opened, that their blind incomprehension may give way to an understanding of the nature of his mission, that they too may break through the limitation of selfishness and enter the spiritual realm of growth and consecration to God. This is the revelation of the love of God, eternally present but at this fateful juncture of history purposely hidden from the view even of the Son. God is no longer merely an outside presence who controls the world but can be called on in prayer. In this climactic moment of human understanding the previous image is extended and a new relationship with God established in the heart of mankind. He is now fully incarnate in the soul as an interior power of sanctification and not simply one that can be called upon from afar by a prayer of convenience when the necessity for his intervention arises. The newly attained understanding knows God as a presence of fragile weakness that gives itself in love unfailingly and perpetually to all that lives. And yet in this apparent helplessness, that refuses to effect a single action of self-centred relief, there lies a strength that may bring about a transfiguration of the entire world. Where the power of coercion has failed, the vulnerability of love has found a way into the heart of the cold world, the soul of an unheeding humanity. We may see in a fresh light the answer given to St Paul when his condition remained unhealed, "My grace is all you need; power comes to its full strength in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). How many incurably ill people have learned this eternal lesson, this ultimate truth!

Chapter 8
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