O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (ELW 257, st. 4)
4 O come, O Branch of Jesse, free
your own from Satan's tyranny;
from depths of hell your people save,
and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
Text: Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, Köln, 1710; tr. composite
In medieval Christianity, it was widely believed that Christ's death on the cross sent him down into the depths of hell. Christian art shows Christ there, stomping on the head of Satan and opening the gates of hell. Christians streamed out toward this victorious Christ — the Christus Victor. This imagination about Christ's victory over hell is hopeful and helpful, even if we are no longer sure that hell is a particular supernatural place. What we do know is that hell happens all over the globe when entire communities are destroyed by natural disasters, when war makes neighborhoods into killing zones, when entire peoples are threatened by genocidal impulses. The experience of disasters or tragic death and displacement can leave people in a state of trauma and "hell" that will never entirely leave them.
Christ's descent into hell reminds us all that even though we may not be able to heal all who are traumatized, Christ can and does. He calls us to join him in stomping down the gates of hell.
Jesus, hell is a painful, terrible state of being. Thank you for not being afraid to move into that terrible space with us and take on our trauma so that we are not abandoned in our pain. Amen.