The Depth of God's Reach (Michael Downey) - Review

THE DEPTH OF GOD’S REACH: A Spirituality of Christ’s Descent. By Michael Downey. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. Xii + 131 pages.

What took place between Good Friday and Easter morning? Did Jesus just lie thereon that stone cold slab in the tomb? Scripture is rather silent about the events of Holy Saturday. While some churches may have an Easter vigil, Saturday is largely a day of silence. There is one important word that speaks to Holy Saturday, and that is the Apostles’ Creed, which cryptically and intriguingly speaks of Christ's descent into Hell or Hades or perhaps even better the place of the dead. The confession that having died and buried, Christ descended to the dead is not continued into the Nicene Creed. While this confession lacks firm biblical support—there are a couple of allusions to Christ's engagement with the dead but nothing explicit—it does speak to those missing hours between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? What occurred on Holy Saturday? Could it be that Christ visited the abyss of depths, and engage with the dead, before rising on Easter morning?

I am part of a Protestant community that eschews creeds and doctrines like this. Nonetheless, when the publicist for Orbis Books suggested this book, along with two others, I found the title intriguing. I looked the book on the website and decided that I would like to read it. While my Disciples context does not give much attention to creeds, growing up in the Episcopal Church I had opportunity to regularly recite the Apostles Creed. Therefore, the concept of Christ’s descent into Hades is not foreign to me.  Thus, I was presented with a review copy, as I wanted to know more.

The Depth of God’s Reach is Michael Downey’s attempt to develop a “spirituality of Christ’s descent.” It is written in recognition that while we may be an Easter people, many of us live between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which is a space where suffering and death are experienced. The author is Roman Catholic teacher of theology and spirituality, who is a student of Jean Vanier and the L'Arche Community. While we may seek a faith that is happy go-lucky, Downey informs us that "this slim volume has been written from that known-in-the-bones conviction that cheery Christianity will no longer do. Spiritual chumminess has worn out its welcome in a time when it is altogether clear that we are living between the cross and resurrection" (pp. ix-x). In the face of the challenges of our time, it is clear that “a cheery Christianity” simply is unworkable. It may take away the pain for a moment, but it won’t deal with the depths of human experience. Thus, I found his arguments about living in this space compelling.

At one level this is a book about death and dying, something we cannot avoid, though we do our best to deny and evade conversations relating to death and dying. I know this to be true as a pastor. There seems to be this belief that if we avoid the conversation this reality won’t overtake us, though experience suggests otherwise. At the same time, it offers us a path into a deeper, more meaningful experience of God’s presence. It should not surprise anyone familiar with Orbis Books, that this book, while not directly related to liberation theology, has a liberative feel. It is a book about hope in the midst of suffering and death.  

The book is comprised of ten relatively brief chapters. Downey begins the conversation with two chapters on death and how we speak of it. We may try to avoid death, but at the same time we seem intrigued by it. Downey wishes to offer us resources to deal with death, as well as offering a spirituality that sustains us as we live in this space called Holy Saturday (chapters 1-2). Chapter 3 might be the linchpin of the book, for in it Downey develops his vision of Christ's "Continuing Kenosis." This is where the descent of Christ comes into play. This is a trinitarian vision, in which God shares fully in Christ's sufferings on the cross but doesn’t stop with death. Downey suggests that this “continuing kenosis,” or descent, begins at birth but continues through Jesus' life moving toward his death on the cross. It is there on the cross that he became the seed that falls to the ground and dies, so that it might bear fruit. From there kenosis moves to the tomb. While we often stop here, Descent has come to its conclusion, and all that is needed is resurrection. But, this isn’t Downey’s vision, for he envisions a further descent, and that is into the place of the dead. By going lower, Jesus descends into the utter darkness, to reach those caught in darkness. He writes that the work of reconciliation was "brought about through a complete identification by God with suffering humanity, dying humanity, dead humanity—even those who are thought to be beyond all hope in the clutches of hell" (p. 33). One doesn’t have to believe in a literal hell—Downey is non-committal here—but it is important that we recognize that hells exist in human experience, and that Jesus experiences this abyss, and with him God fully experiences the abyss. While God experiences the depths of our hells, God doesn’t leave things there. God completes the process by bringing reconciliation.

With this concept of “continuing kenosis” established, we can move forward. Before we go too far, however, Downey reminds us that this doctrine has largely been ignored and devalued. Therefore, he wants to reclaim the doctrine of Christ’s descent from “the ash heap,” believing it has redemptive value. He explores the development of the doctrine, and its eventual displacement. While this doctrine might seem little more than a grammatical turn, Downey sees it as an expression of the vision of the death of the incarnate God. Here he brings into play the two natures doctrine, noting that this doctrine insists that Christ’s divine nature is affected by the human nature—that they interpenetrate each other. With that God not only experiences our dying, but also our wretchedness and tragedy. Why is this valuable? Because it brings comfort. He writes that "through Christ's descent our hell is defeated may give assurance and bring consolation to anyone facing death" (p 59). This is intended to be a word of hope for those who do not seem to have it. 

This is where Holy Saturday comes into play. This oft ignored day allows for time of silence and consideration of God's presence even in the depths of reality, that in Christ God comes to us, we don't have to rise to God's presence. It allows us to come to grips with the reality of our time, when challenges from war and famine and terrorism seem to be everywhere around us. As for the church, it no longer plays a leading role in the world, weakened both by internal failings and external challenges. Yes, Saturday is immense. Yet, he writes that “if the gospel is to be received today as good news, then it is to be proclaimed in a way that springs from the silence and the sorrow of the Saturday. Friday marks the end of a life. On Sunday life begins anew” (p. 92). Saturday is about waiting for new life to emerge, but it is where many find themselves, and thus Jesus is there.

God is already here. So, how do we live into Holy Saturday? There are numerous examples of people, like Teresa of Calcutta, who have entered that realm between Friday and Sunday. We can look to their example to see where Christ is constantly going. With death and its aftermath on his mind, he invites to pray—in the silence of Saturday. Our prayers emerge from a place darkness, where we cannot see anything. We don’t know what is true. Yet, it is in these depths “that we are summoned to look forward, to hope, to give account of the hope that is within us for ourselves and our world” (p. 123).

Downey writes from within the Roman Catholic tradition. He draws from this tradition to lay out a vision of God that resonates, even with me, a Protestant. In fact, I believe that Protestants will find much of value here, for Downey speaks to our realities, our moments of darkness. It is good to know that Jesus doesn’t wait for us to ascend but is willing to descend into our darkness. This is profound. It’s not a cheery vision, but it is a hopeful one. It helps deepen the kenotic vision of God’s decision to be present with us, even in our darkness. Thus, it gives hope that death is not the final word. God pursues us in that realm between death and resurrection so that we might be touched by God’s love and mercy.

There is depth to this book. It is a spirituality that speaks to our times.  It is a worthwhile read, that could prove transformative (a word oft tossed around but is likely true here).  

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