The Descent into Hell
By Thomas M. Thurston
Available on Booksie.com
John mixed a small pool of ink and massaged his hand. He could only write for short periods now, before the cold and the years settled in his knuckles and he would have to rest. He sharpened his reed to a fine writing point and began.
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark contends that these were his last words before he died. Mark wasn't there. Still those words say more clearly what he was feeling than the words I heard pass from his lips: "It has come to an end."
As far as he knew, it had come to an end. If he had expected to come back, he would never have asked me to take care of his mother. All the others thought it had ended too. That's why they weren't there. But I was the one he loved. For me, it had indeed ended. My heart was nailed to the cross. I could no more leave than he could.
He descended into hell. He rested there secure in the knowledge that he had loved truly, and loved until the end. And he had been loved. By his mother, by the Magdalene. And as truly as a man could love him, I loved him. The others loved him too, in their weakness and fear, as men are given to love, fiercely and incompletely.
Then the Father came to visit him in hell.
"Why didn't you come to me when you left the earth? You surely knew I was waiting for you."
Jesus gazed out over the abyss. "How would I know that?"
"No one knows me like you do. Those who knew you knew me because of you. If they come to me and call me Father, it will be because of you."
"Is that what you want? That they should come to you beyond the grave and be your children? Did I become a man so that they could become children? I thought I became a man to be a man. I knew that if they loved one another in their full humanity, without desire of heaven or fear of hell, then you would come to them."
The Father put his arm around Jesus' shoulder, looked down upon him and said, "I have come to you. Please come home."
Jesus turned away. "What is home? When I began, I tried to teach them how to love as you love, caring for the lilies of the field, the sparrows. Everything I did, I did to please you. But they taught me how to love as a man loves. The lilies of the field die and no one cries. Human beings love in particular. You saw how I wept for Lazarus. Isn't that why you sent him back to me? I was just starting to learn and teach how human beings should love, and you took me away.
A cold wind rose up from the pit, yanking at the Father's robe, so that he had to girdle it tight against himself. Jesus clenched his face against the wind.
"You didn't expect to stay there forever, did you? That was never the plan. You did more than enough. I missed you. It's time to come home now."
Jesus turned and looked the Father in the eye.
"I did more than enough? Socrates was over seventy when he was executed. Siddhartha's career was twice my life span. Moses had even longer. I'm the one who's been with you from the beginning. I've always been the perfect expression of you. But when I became a man, I became something that you are not. The Word changes when it becomes Flesh. You never expected that I would change. You never saw how I changed."
The Father stepped back. Ashes carried on the infernal wind stung his eyes but he made no attempt to wipe them clean. "Is this about you, then? Did I not pay enough attention to you as a man? Do I still treat you like the Son in heaven? To me, you'll always be the Son."
Jesus headed down the path toward the second circle, casting his eyes toward Achilles and Patroclus, who gleamed as on the fields of Troy. "You didn't pay enough attention to me as a man, but it's not about me. It's about you. You want me to be with you in heaven. You want humans to be with you in heaven. As a man, I saw that humans needed to be with you on earth. I saw that trying to get to heaven keeps some people from knowing you on earth. To tell you the truth, my problems came from your friends."
"You were a bit harsh with my friends," the Father responded. "Not one of those who say 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of God." My friends have their heart in the right place. For all their titles and learning, they're really simple people at heart. They just want assurances of where they stand with me. If other nations had laws against killing, stealing and adultery, then my friends weren't sure that they were doing enough just by keeping my commandments. So I gave them volumes of other laws: Don't eat pork, wash your hands, take Saturday off. Does someone have to do these things in order to find a place in my heart? Of course not! But these people took great comfort in these laws. Isn't that the point, to comfort my people, to reassure them? Don't make light of the comfort people take from religious structures, regardless of whether these structures have any moral value or not."
Jesus turned his eyes down toward the path as they walked along. "Yes, your friends take comfort, but they take comfort away from others. What you gave for consolation became a tool for exclusion. People just as dear to you as the wisest scribe or the holiest priest felt they didn't stand a chance with you because they couldn't make it in from the fields or the seas to perform the rites, or because they couldn't save enough in six days to rest on the seventh. To these you sent me. I taught them to trust their hearts the way your friends trust the law.
"Then I met others who already trusted their heart. Their love guided them not always wisely. But when they saw human beings in their pain and in their joy, they did not let the laws get in the way of loving and helping. They were fully alive; isn't that what you want? I was learning from them how to be a full human being. If you had felt what I felt, you would know that this is my mission. Only a few were beginning to understand it when your friends took me away."
The Father stopped and looked toward Jesus. "I didn't take you away. It' true I saw the way things were likely to go, but even I can't tell the future perfectly. I thought you'd be coming home earlier than we intended and I didn't raise my hand to stop it. You know how I hate to interfere."
"You hate to interfere?" Jesus stopped short and turned around. "Wasn't giving me a human body with human desires and limitations, and having me walk among your poor to bring some light into their sad lives interfering? Wasn't driving out demons, feeding the hungry, curing the sick and raising the dead interfering? And since when did you become squeamish about interfering? When Ramses wouldn't listen to Moses, you took his firstborn son. When Sennacherib was laying siege on Jerusalem, you sent your own hero down from heaven to turn the Assyrians away. Despite all his father's protection, you sent the four visions to Siddhartha. If you had wanted somehow to reach the ear of Caiaphas or Pilate, you had ample resources. As it stands, the only ones who really understood my work are the Magdalene and John. John's beard hasn't even grown out yet, and the Magdalene--well those poor souls won't listen to a woman, no matter what she says. I'm afraid my work ended before it had a chance to take root."
The Father lowered his voice. "Actually, the Magdalene and John were part of the problem. You know how closely these people link religious purity and sexual purity. People make tremendous sacrifices for their families, and they don't like to have those sacrifices questioned. Yet here you had this unattached woman as one of your closest confidants. If he reputation wasn't soiled before she met you, it was certainly soiled because of her relationship with you. Yet if it were just the Magdalene, I think I could have worked through that. After all, Moses and the prophets had their wives. Even Siddhartha had a wife for a time. No one begrudges a man for the comfort he finds in the arms of the right woman. And since you never made enough money to support a family, people could tolerate whatever passed between you and the Magdalene.
"However, John is a different matter. People were already calling him your beloved. Out of respect for me, they did not call you his lover, but how can there be a beloved without a lover? You have to understand how upsetting this was to my friends. These people raised their devotion to their families to the level of religious importance, and they're not entirely wrong in doing so. What are they supposed to think when they find out you are keeping a boy? This sort of thing just isn't done in our family. Zeus and Apollo have their boys, but those gods are quickly fading into irrelevance. We have always tried to be different from them, better than them, with their intrigues and petty bickering.
"You were sent to be an example to my people. They already find it hard enough to preserve my ways against the ever invasive Greek culture. If they saw My Son behaving like a Greek, they might think their struggle had been for nothing."
Jesus rubbed the wound in his side. He ached from the hollowness where his heart had been drained of its fluids. "So you were embarrassed by John and me? You have never loved with a body. I have. John was teaching me what that meant. I saw this as key to my mission. John's love caught me totally by surprise. He gave new meaning to everything I knew before. Between us there were no boundaries or guidelines; we found the way by traveling. I came to see that if people could understand this love, then they would know that love alone matters--not rules, laws or expectations. Once they understood this, they would understand you.
"You sell them short when you leave them with their rules. Rules build a comfortable cage in which the heart need no longer grow. But look at the hearts of John or the Magdalene or Peter. Only heaven is big enough for such hearts."
Jesus sat down. He hunched his head forward and rested it upon his knees. He felt his fatigue like the weight of all the sins of that place pressing down upon him. A sigh rose up from the depths of his bowels to his throat.
The Father bent down and began tracing in the dirt with his finger. "Must it be finished? Could not John and Peter and the others carry on?"
Jesus looked over to the Father. "They ran and hid. They believe that those who are afraid to love have won the day. They believe that the hopes I raised are only an illusion. And if those who live for love and mercy end up nailed to a cross, who's to say they are wrong to run and hide?"
The Father sat down on the ground. He looked into the depths of Jesus' eyes and muttered, "I'm sorry. Can you forgive me?"
The wind from the depth of the pit stopped blowing. A distant dog stopped yapping. The wailing stopped. Silence. The whole of Hades awaited Jesus' reply.
Finally Jesus sat up straight and raised his head. His eyes opened wide and clear, filling slightly. "Let me go back. If I forgave you here, my forgiveness would mean nothing. But if I could explain to John, the Magdalene, Peter and the twelve, then my mission would not be finished. If they could learn to forgive fate, to forgive the world for its cruelty and hardheartedness, then they might go on loving and not lose heart."
So Jesus returned, first to the Magdalene, then to me and Peter, then to the others. He did not tell us, as Paul would have the world believe, of the Father's forgiveness of his children. The Father realized that we should not remain children. Rather he taught us of the Son's forgiveness of the Father. He taught us to forgive the past and go on loving with a love that could conquer even hell.
And apart from the others, he and I talked about learning to love in the flesh, loving with the body, heart, mind and soul. He warned me that his followers would always find the freedom of our love difficult and threatening. But he consoled me with a promise. In the years to come, the descendents of his followers would look upon images of him hung upon the cross. They would see not just the hero or the victim in his final agony. They would also see the man, naked and strong, exposed and vulnerable. What their leaders would not teach them, they would learn in their bodies. In looking at the image of his body, their flesh would hint at love I had for him.
John lay down his reed. It was too worn down to sharpen again. He rubbed his hand. He thought of the things that others were calling Jesus: savior, messiah, Son of Man who will come in judgment. Was Jesus any or all of these things? He was above all the man who loved him and was loved by him. Jesus said that God is love. Love, thought John, is no abstraction. It is the man he can still laughing and joking on the shores of Galilee.