Holy Saturday’s Silent Embrace

One of the joys of spiritual and intellectual companionship is to recommend to another a book that has deeply influenced one’s own journey. And then to discover that the work recommended has, in turn, enriched the life of one’s student or friend.

Joseph Ratzinger himself was the recipient of such a gift. He recounts how a senior student in the seminary recommended to him Henri de Lubac’s classic, Catholicism, and how that book “became an essential milestone” on his own theological journey.

One of Ratzinger’s own books has itself achieved such classic status: Introduction to Christianity. I have happily recommended it to a generation of theological students and their response has been as enthusiastically grateful as their predecessors who first heard the lectures given by the young Tübingen theologian in 1967.

Re-reading the work recently with a group of graduate students, I was struck once again at the impact it makes. The only regret expressed was that they had not been introduced to it earlier in their theological journey.

One section of the work seemed to speak with particular force, given our proximity to the great Paschal Triduum. Ratzinger offers a short, but penetrating reflection on the article of the Apostles Creed that confesses Christ’s descent into hell. As is characteristic of the entire book, the author has an acute awareness of the need to address the contemporary man or woman who finds the language of faith puzzling, if not crudely mythological.

So he formulates the objection straightforwardly: “Possibly no article of the Creed is so far from present-day attitudes of mind as this one.” A facile solution, advocated by de-mythologizers of various stripes, is simply to eliminate the stumbling block. One might call it the “Bultmann option.” But Ratzinger is too respectful of Tradition and too discerning a student of the human condition to settle for so easy an escape.

Instead, in the manner of a mystagogue, he probes the mystery, associated in particular with Holy Saturday, and finds that it actually resonates with particular force in an age in which God has seemingly fallen silent, conspicuously absent from human affairs, “so that one no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him.”

Descent into Hades
Descent into Hades [click to enlarge]

Among the insights Ratzinger proffers is a deeply pondered consideration of “hell.” He writes: “If there were such a thing as a loneliness that could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another; if a state of abandonment were to arise that was so deep that no ‘You’ could reach it anymore, then we should have real total loneliness and dreadfulness, what theology calls ‘hell’.”

Now, precisely by his descent into hell, Jesus confronts the radical isolation and deprivation that death entails. By his descent, he brings communion to those suffering the pain of estrangement. Such is the consummation of his passion for communion: Jesus, who knew no sin, drinks the cup of humanity’s sinful alienation from others and the Other to its bitter dregs, and makes of it a cup of blessing and thanksgiving.

Thus, Ratzinger contends, “in his Passion Christ went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. . . .Death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened.”

As Joseph Ratzinger would have hoped, his reflections sparked further reflection by those reading his book. The text itself does not explicitly broach the question of whether Christ’s descent into hell effects the salvation of all: the position traditionally termed “apocatastasis.” Many today would affirm that we may indeed “dare hope that all may be saved” (as a book by von Balthasar puts it); but they wisely refrain from any apodictic pronouncement.

In this vein, a thought emerged pondering the mystery of the descent. It relates to the great parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Christ’s descent among the dead, his presence with them in their terrible solitude, is akin to a silent embrace, a kiss not of betrayal, but of love and compassion. It offers forgiveness, restoration, and renewal. But the embrace may, at the last, be spurned and rejected. And the free creature may elect to turn away, shriveling inwardly to the point of non-being.

Forty years after the young Joseph Ratzinger delivered his splendid lectures, the aged Benedict XVI penned his magnificent encyclical Spe Salvi, on Christian hope. In it, he concedes that there may be “people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.” Tragically, such people might not repent even if someone rose from the dead.

Yet the final word remains hope. Not a self-centered hope, a private hope, but hope that’s radically communal, and hence truly Catholic. In words that still echo the discovery of de Lubac’s Catholicism, Benedict writes: “Our hope is always essentially hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”

The great Eastern icon of the Resurrection depicts the victorious Christ who descends to sheol. He firmly grasps the hands of our first parents, liberating them from their self-imprisonment. But the Christian imagination can also envision the sequel. Having released them from bondage, Jesus now turns them toward one another so that, after such long separation and hostility, they may once again embrace. The silent embrace of Holy Saturday, before they ascend together to Easter joy.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).