As Holy Week approaches and we solemnly observe the downward (upward) spiral of events that inevitably is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion (leading to Jesus’ victory), I am reminded of the juxtaposition of the movements of ascent and descent in the Christian gospel. Jesus’ victory is not the resurrection (which is the announcement of his victory) but the cross and his descent into Hades. In that movement he finally fully identified with humanity and was therefore, having embraced the full human experience, able to lead the human race from death to life and from alienation to communion with the God who longs for us to join him.
Similarly for us, true winning is losing, ascending to heaven is descending to the depths, the greatest among us are the least, and the poor are the richest of all. Reflecting on the 4th Sundy of Lent (what is popularly called the Sunday of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, based on the book by John Climacus, who is the saint of the day), Stephen Freeman observed that we in contemporary Western culture get the image of our ascending to the Divine completely backwards. “We simply are not saved by getting better; it is a false image and a false goal.”
John Climacus himself, describing how we ascend to God, said, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” His point was that we have to embrace our sins (and our shame). This doesn’t mean that we “sin more so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1), but rather that we don’t pretend we’re not what we are. Self-improvement (the modern concept of works) simply pushes our sin and shame to the side. Thus, when God enters into us and transforms us, the sin is not actually dealt with because it still lurks around the edges. But when we embrace our sin and shame (which is a side-effect of our spiritual death), then we can descend with Christ into the place of death (Hades) and, from that proper starting point, be raised with Christ to new life.
In the prior essay I described the effort required to truly allow the Spirit to fully enter our heart so that we could enter into the unity with Christ we are promised. Here’s one more reason this holy effort is the opposite of the Covenant of Works. We are not working to improve ourselves so that we are acceptable to God; the work involved is rather opposite, embracing all in us that is unacceptable. Or, in John’s words, “embracing our shame.”
“My failure is both the gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise,” says Fr Stephen. “My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is the very heart of our salvation.”
This is not only counter-intuitive, it is offensive to our sensibilities. But this is the drama of Holy Week, and the very reason that sanctification is so hard. And as we enter into the Holy Week Fast, it is the path we must take if we are to share Christ’s joy and victory, when we cry out, “Christ is risen!” on the far side of Hades.