Saturday, 23 April 2011

He descended to the Dead - what did we gain by this?

What happened when Jesus descended to the dead? How did God die? Is the Corpse of Christ also God? What is Sheol, Hell, Hades? How do you picture it?

Do you imagine Him falling into the horror of death as helpless (and yet as triumphant) as Gandalf falling into the abyss in Moria, battling with the Balrog as He descends to the uttermost depths? Or have you pictured it like Aragorn taking the Paths of the Dead to summon the 'oathbreakers' to fulfil their promise and be summoned to a great victory?

I only realised how little I’d thought about what this descent might be, until I read these words of Von Balthasaar and imagined the terrible reality of a place into which all the world’s sin is finally cast – the second chaos..

Christ's final act of obedience toward His Father, is that He descends into hell - the place into which all the world's sin is finally cast. In hell He encounters His own work of salvation, not in Easter triumph, but in the uttermost night of obedience, truly the obedience of a corpse.

He encounters the horror of sin separated from men. He walks through sin and, traversing its formlessness, He experiences the second chaos. While bereft of any spiritual light emanating from the Father, in sheer obedience, He must seek the Father where He cannot find Him under any circumstances.

It is strange how little we hear meditations on the reality of this extraordinary day in the western church. But last year in Bet Shemesh I attended again the Byzantine Catholic Liturgy of Holy Saturday, in which the mind and heart must contemplate all the day this astonishing fact: “God is dead and we have killed Him.” Nietzsche.

Martin photocopied and sent me some words from the Holy Father’s introduction to Christianity recently and they were illuminating: beginning with the idea that this Death of God is very particular to our own age, in which we have so often chosen to overlook and to do without Him. And yet this phrase of Nietzsche’s, he points out “God is dead and we have killed him.” belongs linguistically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety.. and so to the Liturgy in Bet Shemesh in which a tomb is set up in the centre of the chapel.

Then a beautiful icon of Christ, printed on cloth, is carried with immense reverence, and drapped over it. Throughout the lamentations, flowers and incense are brought with great solemnity by all the congregration and people prostrate themselves before the flower-strewn tomb.

The lamentation continues throughout the day and the poetry of the ancient liturgies makes one marvel at the paradoxical truth that this corpse is still the Godhead. Silent and utterly without power.

God has spoken, God is word, but this does not entitle us to forget the truth of God’s abiding concealment. Only when we have experienced him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence.” Pope Benedict XVI

What can we learn from this?
What appears as the innermost heart of his Passion is not any physical pain, but radical loneliness, complete abandonment. But in the last analysis what comes to light here is simply the abyss of loneliness of man in general, of man who is alone in his innermost being.

This loneliness, which is usually thickly overlaid but is nevertheless the true situation of man, is at the same time in fundamental contradiction with the nature of man, who cannot exist alone: he needs company.

That is why loneliness is the region of fear, which is rooted in the exposure of a being that must exist, but is pushed out into a situation with which it is impossible for him to deal
.” More real and uncomfortable words from the Holy Father.

And yet God enters even into this radical loneliness and this uttermost region of fear..

In truth – one thing is certain; there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches, there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death.

In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell AND death, the word 'sheol': it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is – hell.

And so the Holy Father returns to consider this article of the creed from point of view of this existential loneliness:

This article asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his passion He went down into the abyss of our abandonment.

Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is He.

Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it

When I was in Jerusalem I climbed almost to the top of the Mount of Olives and found there a strange set of tombs I knew nothing about. The Tombs of the Prophets, with some very unprepossessing advertising on a rusty sign! Very Israeli. Often their great archeological sites are left almost desolate and unmarked.

But there in the cool of the stone underground caves, are some tombs carved out, one of which is certainly the tomb of the Prophet Haggai. The others bear traces of being various ancient officials and officers, but at the back of the tomb series is one, which Brother Pierre, who looks after the tombs, tells us may just possibly be one of the places where Christ may actually have been laid.

I took a few pictures down there in the half light.

This one however, I like the best, because it echoes for me what we have just been considering. That there in the depths of Sheol, already we experience the light of the intimation of the resurrection, because even there, by entering into those mysterious realms “into an abandonment so deep that no “you” could reach into it any more, Christ has triumphed.

The door of death stands open since life – love - has dwelt in death.”

And that is a consoling thought.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Come to Oxford for new play on JPII on 27th- 29th April

Leonie Caldecott has written a new play about John Paul II and her daughter Tessa is directing. Why don't you come with us to begin our celebration of the Beatification of JP II? Piotr, Dan, Karolina and I are already booked to go on 27th April. The play starts at 8pm at the Oxford Uni RC Chaplaincy.

Just ring the Oxford Playhouse on 01865 305305 and you can pay for your tickets over the phone. £10 or £5 concession.

Note that the play is taking place in THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY CHAPLAINCY not the playhouse. The playhouse is merely handling the bookings.

Here's where the Chaplaincy is - Rose Place off St Aldates - look out for Cafe Loco!

We'll probably go by Oxford Tube - coaches leave every 10 minutes from various locations from Victoria to Notting Hill.

We may also get the chance to meet some of the Caldecott family who are all inspiring. Leonie and Stratford edit Magnificat at present but Stratford also writes and edits the beautiful print and online Journal Second Spring, which is full of revelatory content. You can even buy back copies, if you've missed it thus far and I would greatly recommend doing so.

Leonie has an amazing gift for making theology accessible as a lived experience, which is the talent of the true theatrical writer.

When I first heard, (around a plate of excellent home-baked brownies) about Leonie's plans for her play on St Therese of Lisieux, I was impressed, but slightly stunned. She intended to combine Dr Who, Dante and the Little Flower, Doctor of Souls, some time-travelling in the woods and a couple of young people, neither of whom had any idea that this Doctor was in fact St Therese or indeed who Therese was at all.

But when Tom and I travelled to Oxford to find out how the local parish had managed to pull off this marvel, we were not disappointed. It was moving, tender and sincere... the scenes of Therese's realisation of her vocation within a vocation and the struggles of her darkest sufferings on behalf of those who most despised her, were realised in such a way that they survive in your memory as a personal experience. I expect no less of the new play THE QUALITY OF MERCY:

This, in Leonie's words, is its premise -

"Where, in the slow reprise of a life well-lived might the dying actor-Pope go, in his mind?

His last words thanking young people for coming to pray for him in St Peters Square during that week made me feel that he was thinking of them in particular. As the sands of his earthly time touched eternity, might this most pastoral of men not dream of walking, one last time, with a group of young people in the mountains, amidst the beauty of God's creation, helping them to find the beauty of truth in their own lives?

What then would he have said to them, how would he have 'accompanied' them in their own journey of faith? And most importantly of all, how would he have helped them to understand the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, as it touched their lives and his own, culminating in that death on the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, which he himself had instituted for the whole Church a few years earlier? How would he make them feel the quality of mercy, and its transformative effect, in their own lives?

THE QUALITY OF MERCY is our attempt to use the very medium which Pope John Paul II appreciated so well, in order to express his vision of faith and his profound understanding of human experience. It touches on all the principal themes of his teaching, from the Theology of the Body to the mystery of vocation, but not in a didactic way.

It uses music, vocal recordings, choral speaking, scriptural imagery and realistic drama to encompass that which he had closest to his heart: the truth that only Love 'makes life alive'. And only in faith does love find its true expression. Furthermore, as he said in his Letter to Artists (1999), "unless faith becomes culture, it has not been really welcomed, fully lived, humanly rethought." And for John Paul II, theatre is the great cultural medium for this task." Leonie Caldecott

She loves also to quote these wonderful lines on Theatre from catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasaar;

"Through the theatre, man acquires the habit of looking for meaning at a higher and less obvious level. In theatre man attempts a kind of transcendence, endeavoring both to observe and to judge his own truth, in virtue of a transformation... by which he tries to gain clarity about himself.”

and let's not forget those words from John Paul II's Letter to Artists that have so often inspired the Bards of the Bard School;

"In situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience... Art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery.

Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption...

The Church is especially keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists. I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man."

See you there! And let's tell our friends in Oxford all about OUR plans to celebrate John Paul II's life; our new Anthology of Poetry from Bards and friends of the Bard School, Heartspeak - A Contemplative Chorus. More of that on the blog later.