Friday, April 13, 2007

The Harrowing of Hell

The Icon of the Anastasis (Resurrection) at the Monastery of Chora in Constantinople.
This is said to be the finest example of the traditional Eastern depiction of the Resurrection. Dating from the 14th Century, it is somewhat unusual in that it shows Christ taking Eve as well as Adam by the wrist (where one feels for a pulse as an indication of life!) and raises them to new life. Beneath the feet of the vigorous and victorious Christ are the remains of the gates of death. Looking on are various prophets and patriarchs, including John the Baptist, Abel the Just (with the shepherd's crook) and Kings Solomon & David.

From Pope Benedict's Homily for the Easter Vigil:
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23[24]: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 138[139]12). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jn 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings – with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.
But we may ask: what is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal – what exactly did Christ bring that was new? The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God’s memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. “Out of the depths I cry to you…” Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.

A Book Recommendation: Alyssa Lyra Pitstick - Light in Darkness : Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell
This book deserves a more detailed review, but I haven't time at the moment, so I'll just pass a few comments. Firstly, I must confess that this wasn't precisely the book I thought it would be. I was hoping that it would deal with the Catholic doctrine of the Descent into Hell in much more detail than it actually does. Dr Pitstick devotes 70 or 80 pages to outlining the traditional Catholic doctrine and ultimately, this does not prove to be enough. There's certainly nothing wrong with her presentation of the doctrine, but to bear the weight of her assault on von Balthasar's interpretation of the doctrine and in order to dispel any lingering doubts about whether her reading of the tradition is too simplistic an extra 50 or 60 pages on the doctrine itself would have been most welcome and would, I think, make her case much stronger.
Secondly, it would be mistaken to think that her work confines itself to dealing specifically with von Balthasar's doctrine of the Descent. Despite being focused around von Balthasar's treatment of the Descent, the core of the work is a through critique of von Balthasar's theology in general - in particular, shortcomings in his Christology and Trinitarian theology which are a result of, or are thrown into relief by his treatment of the Descent. Indeed, again I think the book would have been stronger if she had written at more length about precisely how von Balthasar re-reads the tradition and the effect this has had on posterior theology.
Despite these criticisms, however, (and is it really a criticism to wish that a theology book was longer?) I think this book is very significant and worthwhile. Pitstick has been derisively accused of 'Baltimore Catechism Catholicism'. This is unfair. What she actually presents is a meticulous criticism of von Balthasar's theology written from a Thomistic point of view which demonstrates very clearly the genuine shortcomings of von Balthasar's writings in terms of some pretty basic aspects of theological doctrine. One does not need to be a Thomist to appreciate the fact that Pitstick's careful approach is a fruitful way of highlighting the weaknesses of some dimensions of modern theological though. Indeed, I must confess to a certain intellectual glee at seeing her perform her carefully documented and clearly argued dissection.
Does she treat von Balthasar fairly? That's not a question I can answer, as I am not sufficiently familiar with his work to tell whether she has read him correctly or not. As de Lubac demonstrates in his 'Augustinianism in Modern Theology' it is very possible to misread theological works in the wrong spirit and derive heresy even by repeating verbatim the very words of the great Bishop of Hippo out of their correct context and spirit. I suspect that the accusation will be made that Pitstick has misread von Balthasar. That, I suspect, will be a matter for continued debate. At the very least, however, she had demonstrated beyond a doubt that von Balthasar's works are exceptionally susceptible to a reading that leads to some very questionable results on some very basic theological issues. What little von Balthasar I have read in the past has, on the whole, tended to unsettle me. I'm somewhat gratified that Pitstick has given a much more rigorous form to concerns I've previously felt about his 'Mission Christology', for example.
This is a book worthy of attention and a pleasure to read. It is very much a 'Case on behalf of the prosecution' and I suspect that it will be subject to some manner of a response from von Balthasar's supporters. One hopes that it will be a more measured response than the occasionally hysterical reply of the otherwise seemingly respectable Edward T Oakes in the pages of First Things. Ultimately, I can't pass judgement on her charges against von Balthasar - however, she has certainly put him in the dock and has presented a case that raises very serious question concerning von Balthasar's standing vis-a-vis Catholic doctrine.
It's interesting to note how many points of Pitstick's critique of von Balthasar could also be applied to the theology of Origen. As I read the book, I kept finding myself scribbling the word 'Origen' in the margin as various quotations of von Balthasar reminded me of Origen's theology.


Papa-Lu said...

I can't speak about Pitstick's book, but too was very disappointed with Fr. Oakes' responses to her in First Things. It seemed more like he was interested in defending HUvB's honor thatn his theology. This was somewhat understandable since Pitstick set up her critique as an attack against vB's Catholicity, but I still found Oakes to be rather nasty.

thomps said...

Okay, where did you find a picture of that icon and where can I get one? It's exquisite!

Zadok the Roman said...

If you right-click on the picture above, you can download a reasonably large copy of it. A friend took the photo in Istanbul and doesn't mind people taking a copy.

aelianus said...

Constantinople, please!