The way in which the Apostles’ Creed phrases these two moments seems to suggest that there are 33 years between them: the moment of Christ’s birth (“natus ex Maria Virgine”) is divided from the descent into hell (“descendit ad infernos”) by the life, passion, death, and burial of Jesus.
And yet, theologically, the movement is but one, an arc of descent, so to speak. In entering this world in a “deep incarnation” (as the Danish theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen has termed it) – that is to say, one that reaches into the depth of all materiality and created matter – Christ also entered creation’s shadow side, the violence, and yes, the hells that exist, seen and unseen, of our own making and beyond.
In this Christmas season, in a world of seemingly interminable wars, ongoing ethnic cleansings and genocide, human trafficking, and environmental degradation on the grandest of scales, we do well to acknowledge the arc from Christ’s birth to his descent into hell. Indeed, I have found it strangely comforting. It reminded me of a Christmas hymn written almost exactly 100 years ago, in December of 1937, in Nazi Germany. The Lutheran author, Jochen Klepper, was married to a Jewish woman, and would later end his life together with her rather than face their deportation. In his Christmas hymn (“Du Kind, zu dieser heilgen Zeit”), Klepper juxtaposed the joyful celebrations of Christmas with the stark reality of a newborn in a trough (“Du Kind, zu dieser heilgen Zeit”). In a particularly jarring line, Klepper wrote that in front of the crib, the grave is opened wide. (Needless to say, the hymn is not a favorite Christmas staple in congregations).
Klepper is not alone. Both in the history of theological reflection and in visual representations, there is a long tradition of connecting Christ’s birth and death. The shorthand claim that “Jesus was born to die” is mirrored in manifold allusions to the cross in images of the nativity (e.g., a small crucifix hanging on a wall of the stable). For me, this Christmas, it seemed helpful to draw the line just a bit further: in God’s deep incarnation, the arc of God’s descent does not stop until it reaches the deepest depth of hell. Thanks be to God.
Image: a blackhole