“Born of the Virgin Mary … he descended into hell”

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


  1. I love this reflection. I always thought that in a manner of speaking, the fullness of the incarnation occurred in the Passion and Descent among the dead.

    1. To my knowledge (and to Google’s also), there is no English translation of this German hymn text. The hymn did make it into the German Roman Catholic “Gotteslob” though.
      If someone wants to try their hand at an English translation, here is an e-version of the German text, thanks to the website “Christliche Liederdatenbank”:

  2. This is my rough attempt…and it doesn’t scan, of course.

    You child, at this holy time
    we contemplate also your passion,
    which we at this late night
    through our guilt have brought upon you.
    Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison.

    The world today is filled with joyful noise.
    But you lie in a poor stall.
    Your sentence was imposed long ago;
    the Cross has already been set up for you.
    Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison.

    The world today lies in joyful light.
    But you await the court.
    No one turns away your misery.
    Before your crib yawns the grave.
    Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison.

    The world today is rich with songs.
    But no one puts you in a soft bed
    And sings you to a lovely sleep.
    We piled on you our punishment.
    Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison.

    When we with you arise
    and see you face to face,
    we finally will open our hearts wide in song
    without bitterness.
    Hosanna, hosanna.

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