“Descended into Hell”: Rowan Williams on von Balthasar on Holy Saturday and the Trinity

“Descended into Hell”: Rowan Williams on von Balthasar on Holy Saturday and the Trinity February 13, 2012

…God’s ‘hiding’ of God in the dereliction of the Cross and the silence of Holy Saturday is in fact the definitive revelation. ‘It is precisely the unsurpassable radicality of this concealment which turns our gaze to it and makes the eyes of faith take notice’ (MP, 52). This does not mean, as one kind of modern theology would have it, that Holy Saturday establishes that the transcendent God is dead, emptied out into the pathos of the crucified; quite the opposite. Transcendence, in the sense of radical liberty from the systems of the created world, is given definition by God’s enduring, as God, the depths of godlessness. Equally. this is not some privileging of human vulnerability over impassibility,as if, pace the German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God can only become truly or fully God by incorporating human suffering into divine activity (MP, 65-6). The emptiness of Holy Saturday is precisely the fullness, the already actual fullness of God: God can only be in humanity’s hell, because of what God already and eternally is (MP, 137).

God must be such as to make it possible for divine life to live in the heart of its own opposite, for divine life to be victorious simply by ‘sustaining’ itself in hell. But this directs us clearly to the conclusion that the divine identity cannot be a straightforward sameness or self-equivalence. God’s freedom to be God in the centre of what is not God (creation, suffering, hell) must not be grounded in an abstract liberty of the divine will (such a contentless liberty would only divide the divine will from any coherent account of divine consistency and thus personal dependability), but in the character of God’s life. If God can be revealed in the cross, if God can be actively God in hell, God is God in or even as what is other than God (a dead man, a lost soul). Yet that otherness must itself be intrinsic to God, not a self-alienation. If we are serious in regarding God as intrinsically loving, this otherness  must be something to do with divine love. Once again, we cannot think of God’s presence in the otherness of death and hell as if God initially lacked something which could be developed only through the process of Jesus’  experience.

But if the otherness within God is true otherness and if it is in no way conditioned from beyond, then it can only be imagined as the action of love and freedom; and an act of love and freedom that causes real otherness to subsist can in turn only be imagined as a self-emptying, a kenosis. Balthasar several times draws on the theological writings of the great Russian thinker Sergii Bulgakov for this language of an eternal kenosis in the life of God which itself then makes possible the kenosis involved in creation (MP, 35: GL7, 213-14; TD2, 264, note 27): God the Father pours out his divine life without remainder in the Son; his identity is constituted in this act of giving away, which Bulgakov dramatically describes as ‘self-devastationand Balthasar as a ‘divine godlessness’:

In the Father’s love there is an absolute renunciation of any possibility of God being for himself alone, a letting-go of the divine being, and in this sense a (divine) godlessness (a godlessness of love, of course, which cannot be in any way confused with the godlessness found within  this world, although it is also, transcendentally, the ground of the possibility of this worldly godlessness). (TD4, 323-4)

Rowan Williams. ‘Balthasar and the Trinity’, in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar. edited by Edward T. Oakes S.J. and David Moss

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  • Thanks to Mark for bringing this reflection to open up some further discussion and dialogue through the medium of this Vox Nova blog site.

    For me, this post is a rare and exciting, even exquisitely breathtaking exploration of a deep and mystical perspective on the possible meaning of Holy Saturday.

    It also sheds some light as well on the credal and confessional reference to Jesus’ existence, his location, his place of being or work accomplished for our salvation, following the death on the cross and prior to his Resurrection which was discovered and announced by Mary Magdalene and a privileged few disciples very early in the morning hour of dawn on that day which faith and history has called the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection or Easter Sunday.

    Since there were no witnesses to this period, we can only speculate and follow our tradition on the meaning and the purpose of that sacred time between death and resurrection.

    As I read this text from Rowan Williams, I am reminded somehow of the recent release of a recording by Leonard Cohen, called “Show Me the Place”.

    How we hunger & yearn for a glimpse of the Holy Place where Jesus is, was, and always will be. It’s a part of the wondrous mystery of God’s Incarnation which is at the heart of our Christian faith tradition.

    I look forward to more reflections and contributions of other participants in this discussion, as we head into the annual liturgical season of Lent & Holy Week.

  • Ronald King

    Mark, correct me if I am wrong. While reading this I was reminded of the Buddhist Path of Purification in which one’s attachments to this world and relationships defines the person and is the cause of suffering. Through becoming aware of attachments and emptying oneself of these attachments the person essentially dies to self and becomes nothing. At this point there is a re-birth in which the person has a new relationship with self, others and creation in that when one becomes nothing one is a part of everything. Whereas before this process there was always the self attached to everything but never a part of anything. The purpose of this path of purification is to grow into the love that unites everything.
    The Dark Night of The Soul seems to be along these same lines.
    Is the writer saying that the void of nothingness or death is now occupied by God when He joined that nothingness in His crucifixion?

  • Mark Gordon

    Good to see you posting again, Mark. The phrase that kept coming to mind while reading this passage was “divine impoverishment.” It’s funny, I looked up Webster’s definition of impoverish just now (“1: to make poor; 2 : to deprive of strength, richness, or fertility by depleting or draining of something essential”), and the example of its use was “the dictator enriched himself but impoverished his people.” How wonderful and mysterious it is that God, unlike every human king ever known, impoverished himself in order to enrich his people.

    I remember once hearing someone say that in nature God revealed his power to the pagans. In the Law, he revealed his justice to the Jews. But in Christ, God revealed his humility. Christ is the kenotic humility and love of God.

  • Greg Mayers

    Christ is the Father’s amends to us.

  • bpeters1

    Balthasar has some beautiful passages on this topic. Then there are others, like, “[The Lamb] has diverted onto himself all the anger of God at the world’s faithlessness….Can we seriously say that God unloaded his wrath upon the Man who wrestled with his destiny on the Mount of Olives and was subsequently crucified? Indeed we must” (TD v. 4, pp. 343, 345). Balthasar’s talk of the Father “crushing” the Son into the farthest and deepest regions of godforsakenness, to the point of literally becoming sin, and Balthasar’s identifying that alienation/distance as the economic manifestation of God’s immanent love (!) put up some red flags for me.