I wonder if anyone knows the ‘Far Side’ cartoons by Gary Larsen? You occasionally see them in magazines and newspapers, not the current affairs section but somewhere down the back where the editors reckon, if you’ve got that far, you’re entitled to a bit of a laugh at the ridiculousness of everyday life. So, in this one cartoon – you need to picture this – you see the usual stuff, stalactites and stalagmites, vast gloomy underground caverns with flickering furnaces around every other corner, demented-looking bats and horned devils, the usual sort of stuff that lets you know where you’ve ended up, and in the central cavern a neat row of dormitory beds, each one with some poor damned soul sound asleep at the end of a long day’s brimstone and sulphur. But in the middle bed a figure sits bolt upright, eyes out on stalks, screaming wildly. ‘Relax, Chuck’, says the bloke in the next-door bed. ‘It’s only a nightmare. Course, you are still in hell’.
I remember, as a teenager with already a fairly jaded view of sermons, coming across this most obscure doctrine that the church, back then, anyway, called by the name of the ‘harrowing of hell’. It seemed to me that hell would be harrowing enough as it was, without the poor damned souls having to put up with Jesus coming down to preach to them on Holy Saturday. Can’t you just imagine the heckler – there’d have to be a heckler, amongst that audience, ‘Mate, talk about shutting the door after the horse has bolted’.
Of course, most Bible scholars are pretty comfortable with the idea of this one having a fair dash of poetic licence about it. Whatever Jesus got up to between the crucifixion and Easter morning, the one thing we know for sure is that there weren’t any eyewitnesses. So clearly this little aside in the letter of Peter written around the end of the first century probably not by Peter himself but a second-generation protégé - is by way of allegory, a poetic, theological reflection. And yet – this cryptic aside in verse 19, then in the next chapter, verse six where the writer talks again about the Gospel being preached to those already dead – there’s always seemed to me to something powerfully evocative about this image. What’s the writer trying to say here? If the idea isn’t simply Jesus going down to other place to rub it in a bit – ‘bet you’re sorry you didn’t go to church now’ – and I don’t seriously think it is – then what’s the point?
A modern theologian who rejoices in the name Hans Urs von Balthazar picks up this image which, despite its pretty sketchy basis in the New Testament featured pretty strongly in older forms of the Creed – before squeamish 19th century editors got to it the Apostles’ Creed used to solemnly assure us that Jesus ‘descended into Hell’. Von Balthazar makes this the whole cornerstone of his theology of the Trinity, and he even strengthens it up a bit. Jesus, he says, is no whistlestop evangelist, he’s not just blowing in and out of Hell on a sort of cosmic Billy Graham Crusade. This is actually it, Jesus, as dead as a doornail, drifting down into the desolate and hopeless realm of those who have voluntarily chosen death over life, who have freely chosen the absolute loneliness of non-relationship with the Source of all life. Jesus’ drifting downwards – we accept for the moment the visual imagery of the first century where heaven was up there and hell down there – this drifting downwards is not active but passive – Jesus, who has experienced on the cross the total darkness of abandonment by divine love, stripped of every power and initiative of his own, drifts into the realm of utter negativity. But there is a difference. From the point of view of Hell, there is a problem. Because alone among the residents of Hell, Jesus is here out of love for those who he now joins – and in choosing to be together with those who have chosen loneliness he upsets the whole applecart.
This, I guess, is the sermon Jesus preaches in that place of utmost desolation. That God, still being God even though in this place utterly devoid of power and initiative, can still follow human creatures and can still be available in love even to those who in their wilfulness have chosen to put themselves apart from the possibility of divine love. The radical freedom of creation means that human creatures are able to separate themselves from God. We do have that power. We can make that much of a muck of our lives, and of our world. It’s just that, in the absolute weakness and passivity of death, God chooses to join us. In the words of the old pop song: if you leave me, can I come too?
Which means, if even the chaos of sin and hell can be gathered into the sweep of divine love, then the Trinitarian love of Father and Son that expresses itself into creation in the person of the Holy Spirit encompasses the whole of creation - everything we can do, whether good or bad, the future of creation as well as the whole of human history, is gathered up together into the sphere of God’s activity. Human freedom to act for good or for evil is not diminished by this, the dreadful toll of bushfires and earthquakes and tsunamis is not diminished and neither is the serendipity of love or the unlooked for miracle of human happiness. But the whole chaotic, wonderful mess of creation, from our best impulses to our worst choices, are held within the loving purposes of God, everything is transformed and holds within it the potential for new life and new hope in the wider horizon that is God’s perspective.
In a fairly tortured chain of logic, the writer of the epistle connects this reflection with Noah’s ark for no better reason than that he really, really wants to talk about baptism, and Noah’s ark has got water in it. I want to suggest another connection, and it’s suggested to me by the fact that the Hebrew name, Noah, means ‘rest’. Yes, building a three storey ark the size of a football field and rounding up mating pairs of every single living creature in the world in the seven days flat that God gives him in chapter seven, verse 4, would have been a fairly strenuous undertaking, but actually Noah’s role is essentially passive. They go into the ark, as God commands them, and in chapter seven, verse 16, we are told, God himself closes the door behind them. And there they sit and wait.
It’s a wonderful, terrible story, when you think about it. Noah and his family and their menagerie, representing the seeds of all life on the planet, sealed into their little time capsule, waiting in the darkness. It’s a journey over which they have no control, a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from one world to another world, from a world of trees and plants and rivers and living creatures, from villages and cities of men and women and children to - what? We might, and many have, drawn tenuous parallels between the 40 days in the ark and Jesus’ three days in the tomb. Or we might just think of the story in its own terms, a journey into holiness and the darkness of waiting, in which there are no reference points, no maps, no remembered stories that assure us that we’ll ever reach a safe destination, and in which God himself is silent.
And the point is that we – all of us, I guess – recognise that place. Somewhere in your life you can probably remember being in such a place, drifting on the dark water, alone in the silence of God. And the name, Noah, tells us what to do. Just rest.
It’s a pretty active rest. He still has to feed the animals and clean out their stalls and stop them from eating each other. He’s still taking soundings, searching for landfall by firing off the odd dove. But the role of Noah is to rest and to wait.
I find this not a bad metaphor for where we are now – for the ark of the planet, for the ark of the Church. We’ve become poignantly aware of the fragility of the planet God has given us to care for, we can’t escape the realisation that our care of it has been negligent, that in treating the earth and its creatures as commodities for our use we have reached a tipping point where its future is precarious and uncertain. We’ve reached the point where we realise that our human culture, our economy, our technology, don’t insulate us or give us the security we are so desperate for. We’ve reached the point where the Church, that once seemed to be the solid centre of our world, has receded to a single voice among many in the marketplace of ideas and fads. And it can seem, in these circumstances, as though we are cocooned in an ark covered over with tar listening to the muffled sound of the water slapping against the sides, on a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, without any reference points or remembered stories to assure us that there’s going to be a safe destination.
But God remembers Noah. That’s the point. God reconnects and restores Noah, and in this muddy, unrecognisable new world in which he lands, God gives Noah a new fixed point, new horizons and a new covenant. It’s the same point as the one made allegorically in the letter of Peter – there is nowhere and nowhen that is outside the circle of God’s care, no circumstances that can’t be opened up to God’s perspective and transformed. Wherever we find ourselves, in the hell of loneliness or desolation of our own making, in the darkness of transition between a longed for past and a fearful future, God remembers us, God waits with us.
Which is a pretty good place for us to begin this journey of Lent.