By Hannah Bowman
Holy Saturday liturgically commemorates Jesus’s descent into hell, or descent to the dead: an ambiguously interpreted tradition that found its way from a few obscure references in the New Testament into the Apostles’ Creed and popular piety.
Early Christian paschal liturgy developed and ornamented the tradition of a victorious descent, in which Jesus’s sojourn in hell has the character of a divine rescue mission. Eastern Orthodox Anastasis icons depict the rescue of Adam and Eve and the destruction of death, as Jesus tramples down the gates of hell and draws humankind out of death with him. The descent is associated with the apocalypse and the ultimate destruction of death and hell (Rev. 20:14).
But a parallel interpretation, exemplified by Hans Urs von Balthasar in the 20th century, emphasizes the descent as a deepening of Christ’s suffering on the cross — as the fullness of his experience of human suffering, death, and even the “second death” of forsakenness and abandonment by God. On this particular Holy Saturday, surrounded by disease, death, and social isolation, this aspect of the descent seems most relevant to reveal to us the promise of a new kind of community, born from isolation and woundedness.
My ethics professor recently described the coronavirus crisis as “apocalyptic” because of what it has revealed (apokalyptein) about our society. As poorly paid and poorly protected service workers bear the burden of allowing the rest of us to stay home in relative safety, the fault lines of class between “essential” and “non-essential” workers are growing increasingly clear.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus is hitting more marginalized populations devastatingly. In Los Angeles, as cases are beginning to arise in the homeless community, advocates fear that even the new emergency shelters will be crowded and risk further transmission. As prisons become breeding grounds due to crowded conditions and insufficient soap and disinfectant (what one jail doctor described as “the world’s worst cruise ship crossed with the world’s worst nursing home, plus violence”), prisoners are sickening and dying at disproportionate rates.
The infection rate in New York’s jails is seven times higher than the rest of badly hit New York. The death rate is disproportionately high among Black people. At the same time, as doctors prepare to triage insufficient supplies among ill patients, some states’ guidelines are already discriminating against disabled people and devaluing disabled lives.
Yet at the same time that this crisis makes the need for action and advocacy for justice more evident than ever, social distancing measures restrict the possibility for action. Some action, of course, is continuing: mutual aid networks are springing up in the face of current need; volunteers are sewing cloth masks for medical workers; people are supporting local restaurants by sending food delivery to local hospitals. Yet food pantries are facing desperate shortages of volunteers, volunteer and chaplaincy programs in prisons have been shut down, and — of course — churches are closed. The possibility of mass mobilization against the inequities revealed in this pandemic has been thwarted, as our lives retreat largely to the private horizons of our own homes.
Steven Thrasher, a scholar of the AIDS epidemic, writes of the differences between ACT UP activism in that crisis and the possibilities left open in this one: “This new virus means, precisely, that such tactics [of disrupting space with our bodies by physically showing up demanding accountability] are impossible to try to shape the political response to the virus — and how our isolation precludes such physical collective action is a conundrum.”
How do we act when our capacity for mass mobilization is hampered by our need for physical separation, our lack of childcare, or the desperate economic straits in which we find ourselves? What do we do when we can do nothing? The descent into hell reveals an answer.
Balthasar, as I noted above, understood the descent into hell as Jesus’s real suffering of death and condemnation, describing Holy Saturday first and foremost as the day when the Son is dead and so (since he is the way to the Father, John 14:6) as the day when the Father is inaccessible. For Balthasar, Jesus’s descent into hell is a real experience of the depth of the spiritual suffering of condemnation and isolation from God, which he identifies as the primary torment of hell. Jesus is dead, to begin with — and the rupture, abandonment, and isolation which are the reality of death, experienced by Jesus who is God, transform the generic realm of the dead into an experience of torment that we call hell. Hell is isolation.
We know this in our life in the world as well. The descriptions given by great mystics of the torments of hell — St. Teresa of Avila writes, “In this defiled place, where the slightest hope of consolation is excluded forever … I am imprisoned as if in a hole in a wall; the walls themselves, loathsome to look at, press in upon one with their full weight; everything makes one suffocate; there is no light at all” — mirror the descriptions given by prisoners in solitary confinement of the desperation of their isolation. And isolation is a reality of death, especially but not only during a time of pandemic: when asked about the difficulty of ministering to the dying without visitors at their side, a hospital chaplain working in the midst of the New York coronavirus outbreak said, “Dying is something no one can do with us. We all die alone.”
The truth revealed in Balthasar’s interpretation of the descent into hell is that Jesus died alone and descended to the fullness of isolation. In Jesus’s death, he is in complete solidarity with the dead, in complete solidarity with their state of isolation. Such solidarity in isolation is the apotheosis of the sort of unity-in-separation that we are all experiencing in the current crisis.
Balthasar concludes by describing the vocation of the church in light of Holy Saturday: “Being dead with the dead God.” When we cannot gather, act, mobilize, or do anything to combat the inequities revealed to us in the current crisis, perhaps the solidarity of our shared immobility, our being dead with the dead God, is enough. What we have to share is the reality of our separation. What we have to reveal to each other are our wounds — but solidarity in woundedness and the visible sharing of wounds are, as we will remember liturgically next week, themselves signs of resurrection (John 20:27).
Such solidarity in woundedness offers us a way of interpreting the difficult words on suffering found in Romans 5:3-6: it is not that our suffering on its own produces character, endurance, or hope, but that our suffering together produces a community of solidarity. “We all die alone,” so suffering is experienced in isolation. But rather than drive us apart, our suffering and concomitant isolation, even at the extreme of the self-condemning self-centeredness that characterizes hell, draw us closer into community — albeit a community whose solidarity is grounded only in our shared experience of separation. How is this possible? Because, as Romans 5:6 attests, when we were still weak Christ died for the ungodly. Christ’s experiencing and bearing in himself the essential aloneness of death, the fullness of isolation, and the very depths of the torments of hell produces a community of divine solidarity in the depths of hell’s isolation: contra Augustine, a Church in hell. Our solidarity derives from Christ’s solidarity with us all the way to death and hell. Christ’s isolation reveals isolation as solidarity.
On this unusual Holy Saturday, we Christians cannot gather. On Holy Saturday the dead Christ cannot act. But such apocalyptic stillness and separation, such a “great silence in heaven” (Rev. 8:1), reveals the depths of the Church. We are the community, perhaps especially on this day and in this season, that waits — dead with the dead God.
Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).