Christ, the Prisoner: Webb on Von Balthasar and Prison Ministry

Christ, the Prisoner: Webb on Von Balthasar and Prison Ministry August 27, 2013


Stephen Webb has written a short and powerful reflection on Christ’s descent into hell at First Things today. The post reads in the style of a testimonial homiletic. Short, imaginative, rooted in scripture, and personal. Moving, too. Webb begins by disputing Von Balthasar’s thesis in  Mysterium Paschale through his own alternative reading of Christ descending into hell as a prisoner. A preaching prisoner.

He writes,

Jesus, after all, was condemned as a criminal and died between two criminals. It is even likely that he was imprisoned, although the Bible says nothing about this. Where else would he have been between the arrest on the evening of Holy Thursday and the trials that began on the morning of Good Friday? … In any case, after his death he visited the ultimate prison of hell itself. Having accepted God’s judgment on all of humankind, Jesus would have felt right at home in hell, and the prisoners would have been glad to welcome him. The sharing of the good news is a joyful event, especially in a place where its message is most needed.

This argument leads to this kerygmatic proclamation: “Preaching to the condemned is the very essence of the Gospel.”

Webb’s hermeneutic choice is revealed in his consistent characterization of Christ as a prisoner who preaches to prisoners. This is different from the teleology of the Christ of liberation theology, the more heroic Savior who sets the captives free without essentially being a captive himself. The imprisoned Christ, we come to find out, is inspired by a phenomenological experience: Webb’s own ministry to the imprisoned.

Here we find a remarkable testament to the mystagogy of evangelization: the rabbi must die a worldly and mystical death in order to preach to the imprisoned not as a prison guard or a jailer, but, instead, as a fellow prisoner, offering a paradoxically fraternal freedom, a redemption that is professed without an escape.

Webb testifies,

 The men I worship with know they have made terrible mistakes. They also know that the judicial system, with its plea bargaining and assumption of guilt, is not interested in their confessions. When we worship together, we are freed from all pretensions that we are anything but guilty of numerous sins—more than the system will ever know, of course.

This is a melancholy and dark reading, not unlike Von Balthasar’s, but it is also an evangelical one. And it succeeds in offering a new and better way to preach. We must preach the Gospel at all times, Webb teaches, but we must never presume to preach as the exception. For Christ preached to the infernal prisoners as a prisoner, offering life in the most radically dead place imaginable.

I know this to be true because of my father’s work as an evangelist. There is a radical and absolute form of solidarity shared amongst the broken hearted. My father’s conversion is rooted in the healing of his heroin addiction. To this day, when people hear this story, they are able to listen and trust and believe. Webb is very different than my father in many respects, but his understanding and acceptance of his lowly place as a fellow prisoner is, on my reading, identical.

May we all be blessed to be Christ-like prisoners, restless for a freedom that offers something more, and therefore less, than a quick exit or a vacation.

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