Lower than Death: An Easter Dark Devotional

Lower than Death: An Easter Dark Devotional April 14, 2017
Original art by Brian C. Jocks
Original art by Brian C. Jocks


“Did You ever know loneliness, did You ever know need?
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on and Your friends fall asleep
And don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You’re up there just playing hard to get?”
     – from “Hard to Get” by Rich Mullins

I wish it were only a sick pilgrim thing, trying to find the object of dark devotion on the happiest day of the liturgical calendar, milking as much Good Friday as we can until Easter Sunday. However I’ve noticed a number of people over the years who associate Easter primarily with the crucifixion. I’m not sure if this is evidence of Biblical illiteracy or modernist doubt in the resurrection. Maybe it’s just the experience of their faith being voiced subconsciously. Sure, the Master has called me forth from my metaphorical grave like he did Lazarus; even the people who loved me and believed Jesus were certain I stank. Those moments were nothing like the glorious resurrection of the Lord.

On the other hand, I know plenty about crucifixion. I’ve inflicted a few and suffered a few more. Hardly the innocent lamb, I can be a pretty decent imitation of St. Dismas, the good thief who died next to Jesus on the cross, on some occasions. Other days I’m hell bent on getting what I deserve. I also have lost loved ones, and the hope of seeing them again is almost too much. Easter serves as a bittersweet reminder. I believe the reunion will come; but damn me if I have to continue waiting. Do you really expect me to spiffy up my Sunday’s best for this?

I believe the resurrected Lord is alive in me. Why do I sometimes feel lower than death?

Perhaps I’ve made my bed in some hell to which the Lord descended. Christian tradition has usually depicted that part of the creed with images of triumph in a rout. Jesus marches in with his banner raised, preaching to the righteous waiting on their redemption, and ultimately leads them out of hell. This may very well be true, and I don’t have it in me to argue with the consensus among orthodox theologians throughout the ages. But it sounds easy. This account of the harrowing of hell doesn’t sound especially harrowing, particularly in comparison to Christ’s suffering on the cross.

Hans Urs von Balthasar challenged this account in his grand Christology, Mysterium Paschale.  Balthasar, the Swiss theologian and ex-Jesuit, was no Mickey Mouse theologian. He co-founded the journal Communio http://www.communio-icr.com/ along with luminaries like Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger (better known as Pope Benedict XVI), both of whom honored him as “perhaps the most cultured man of our time.” St. John Paul II offered him a cardinal’s hat three times. Balthasar turned it down twice, said yes on the third offer, and died before the consistory that would have made it official. He is remembered for his theology of beauty and his vision of a vibrant laity providing an evangelical witness to the world. Balthasar was hardly a theologian who mistook novelty as innovation, yet his scholarly work led him to believe Christ’s passion did not end on the cross. Balthasar believed the descent into hell involved Jesus suffering human damnation, that God mysteriously experienced estrangement from God.

In his introduction to the latest edition of Mysterium Paschale, Aidan Nichols writes: 

Balthasar stresses Christ’s solidarity with the dead, his passivity, his finding himself in a situation of total self-estrangement and alienation from the Father. For Balthasar, the Descent ‘solves’ the problem of theodicy, by showing us the conditions on which God accepted our foreknown abuse of freedom: namely, his own plan to take to himself our self-damnation in Hell. It also demonstrates the costliness of our redemption: the divine Son underwent the experience of Godlessness. Finally, it shows that the God revealed by the Redeemer is a Trinity. Only if the Spirit, as vinculum amoris between the Father and the Son, can re-relate Father and Son in their estrangement in the Descent, can the unity of the Revealed and Revealer be maintained. In this final humiliation of the forma servi, the glorious forma Dei shines forth via its lowest pitch of self-giving love.”

Mysterium Paschale is the most controversial of Balthasar’s works, surpassing even Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, the book where he suggested hoping for a hell empty of human souls was a Christian duty. Praise, criticism, charges of heresy, and attempts to reconcile Balthasar’s opinion with the traditional consensus abound on the internet, but he died with the favor of John Paul II, and he was a significant influence on both Benedict XVI and Francis.

Still, I’m not interested in the controversies today. My focus is on the human need that might desire Balthasar’s belief to be true. A God who has experienced the pain of being abandoned by God has something more in common with the sick pilgrim and is a step removed from being a Superman without the challenge of a dilemma beyond his capabilities. If this is ever defined as a heresy, it certainly has been a helpful heresy for strugglers of all sorts. It speaks to a deficiency in our understanding of how closely Christ identifies with us, a truth that is Truth even if Balthasar is wrong.

Perhaps Balthasar also explains the condition of people who can’t escape Good Friday on Easter Sunday. In the same volume, he wrote:

“Since we stand under the law of the Risen One, he places us on the way of the Cross, and we travel our way of the Cross only in his power, and his hope who, as the Risen One, has already won the victory. This is why the Church, and Christians, can occupy no determinate place within the Mysterium Paschale. Their place is neither in front of the Cross nor behind it, but on both its sides: without ever settling for the one vantage point or the other they look from now one, now the other, as ceaselessly directed.”

This game of back and forth is beautifully illustrated in the song “Hard to Get” by Rich Mullins.

After a series of lamentations interrupted by recollections of how deeply human Jesus was, Mullins asks one last question before making his confession of torment, confusion, and resignation to mystery:

All I really need to know
Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret

I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

We may question the mystery, but we need not be crushed by it. Broken, battered, crucified lot that we are, we are the Easter people that we are becoming through Christ, and we praise him even in our sighs and groans.

Toby D’Anna is a middle school English teacher in Tacoma, Washington, and a frequent contributor to Sick Pilgrim.

Brian C. Jocks is an award-winning illustrator with a B.A. in fine art from the University of Louisiana. Brian’s art makes its way online on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter.

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