- Fr. John Jennings
Our Sacred Stories ~ Going to Hell and Back
Whenever I watch the TV News there seems to be much pain in our world. Wars, disasters, failures of our institutions and the pain that is visited on both individuals and communities seem to dominate. Life might often appear to have a taste of hell on earth. Everyone of us, on any given day, might find ourselves going to hell and back repeatedly in what we face.
This Sunday is Passion Sunday. The Gospel we hear is Matthew’s version of the passion narrative (Matt.26:14-27:66). Later this week on Good Friday we will hear the story again in the version from John’s Gospel (John 18:1-19:42). Both versions tell the story of the suffering and death of Jesus. In both versions we are taken to something that we Christians find expressed in our Apostles Creed: “He descended into hell.”
What are we to make of this statement in our creed? What is the meaning of this statement? Why is it so important that we include it in our creed as a basic element of our community faith?
Both the stories of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross and the creed statement: “He descended into hell” speak to the same truth of our faith. Our God loves us unconditionally, and loves us so much that God cannot leave us in the hells that mark our human existence. The Incarnation, the birth of Jesus, Son of God taking on our humanity, his suffering and death, his descent into hell and his resurrection are all expressive of God’s dream for the beloved. Every single human being, that has ever lived, now lives and will live can never be beyond the love that God has for us, even or perhaps especially when we face our hells.
Do we really believe this? There are times when each of us finds ourselves in our own private hells. Times when no one seems capable of bringing us out of it. We can be filled with fear, disillusionment, vulnerability and pain. Our world can be full of violence, injustice, conflict and suffering and there seems no way to bring it to an end. Sometimes it all seems too much – we can lose hope and promise.
All of this is where we hear the stories of Holy Week and the faith expressed in our creed and are reminded of what is at the heart of our God. To do so is to recover hope. Jesus as savior means that God has a heart that reaches into our hells and the hells of all humanity. “He descended into hell” so that he might bring unconditional love even to the deepest depths, bringing light and life where there is darkness and death.
This is often hard for us to accept. In our own private hells of pain and discouragement, woundedness and alienation it can seem that no one can help. But God’s love is always unconditional and God will not give up. The great step in growing faith is the one that takes us to acceptance that such unconditional love is possible. Basic to our faith is the statement: He descended into hell.” In our creed it is followed by “On the third day he rose again from the dead.”
Can we accept that hell is not part of God’s dream for us personally or as a world? Will our faith allow us to grasp the hope and promise that Jesus’ descent into hell reveals. That God’s caring, compassionate love goes everywhere and brings new life to all? To accept this and reflect it to those around us and throughout our world is a call to every disciple of Jesus and a consolation to the suffering.
May you be blessed with the life-giving experience of a
Holy Week filled with much love.