One evening last summer, our family went to the neighborhood playground. Totally rebuilt two years earlier with lots of slides, tunnels and other apparatus for the modern child, the playground is a major source of delight for our two young girls.
Prior to this visit, however, vandals had built a fire underneath one of the plastic tunnels used by toddlers, burning a large hole in it. Children could no longer crawl through this tunnel.
Natasha, 3, was startled by this happening. "Why?" was her repeated question regarding the destruction of the tunnel. Her parents were unable to provide a satisfactory answer. Not that any answer would do. "Why? Why?" continued her shocked and puzzled refrain.
Natasha was not much interested in the playground that evening. She avoided the other apparatus and was soon ready to leave. On the way home, she clung close to her mother and the happy, carefree air of our walk to the playground was gone. It was as though her youthful innocence had been confronted by what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger calls "the exposed nature of existence."
Ratzinger once wrote a few pages about one of the neglected truths of our faith — Christ's descent into the dead (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 223-30). There, he declared that "not only God's speech but also his silence is part of Christian revelation."
The experience of God's silence, or his absence, is one of the most unsettling human experiences. We are taught that the loving God is everywhere and in all things. There is enormous comfort in that and it can help us to endure great suffering.
Yet, there can come times when nothing can keep our comfortable world rightside up. It may come in the death of a relationship, the suicide of a loved one, in the face-to-face confrontation with unspeakable evil, in the approach of one's own death or even in such lesser tragedies as having one's home broken into. One encounters not the loving care of God, but rather God's absence.
In these situations, one makes one's own Jesus' cry from the cross -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). This is a raw prayer from hell, from the absence of God.
This prayer of abandonment marks Jesus' entry into hell. Jesus, the Son of God, is one with us in our moments of utter desolation. He has been there too. And further.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 635) quotes the anonymous Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: "He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep."
Think of Adam. Thousands of years in the pit. Every moment experiencing the absence of God. And then suddenly the Son of God is in the pit too. With Adam. An unfathomable love ends Adam's loneliness.
Ratzinger puts it this way: "Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, . . . 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" (pp. 229-230).
One of my prayers for Natasha is that she will be preserved from the cynicism, the despair, the evil of the world. That her innocence will be preserved.
It's an impossible prayer in a world fractured by original sin. The reality of our world is that there will be times of desolation. But because Christ went into the pit, the absence of God is not the final word. Christ has broken through our abandonment and offers us his unfathomable love -- the possibility of eternal life.
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