Sunday, May 6, 2018
Sixth Sunday of Easter – B
“I believe in one God,” the Creed, our Profession of Faith, begins.
There are two forms of the Creed that we pray regularly. One is the Apostles’ Creed that we use for the renewal of our Baptismal promises, and that we use to begin the rosary with the prayer on the crucifix.
The other form of the Creed is a longer version given to us by the Council of Nicea, and called the Nicene Creed. That is the one that we pray every Sunday at Mass.
In the Apostles’ Creed, there is this line: “He was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again.” That line, Jesus “descended into hell” – do you know what that means?
First off, this is not the hell of eternal damnation. This hell is different. Sometimes it is called “the realm of the dead.” Or in Greek mythology it was referred to as “Hades” or “the underworld.”
When Adam and Eve sinned, the gates of heaven were closed until our Redeemer would come. So all of the people from Adam and Eve all the way forward to the time of the crucifixion, who died loving God, could not yet get into heaven. When Jesus died on the cross our sins were forgiven, the gates of heaven were opened, and He “descended into hell” to lead the just ones into heaven.
One Christian writer pictures it this way: with Jesus going to His foster father, Saint Joseph, first, and Saint Joseph saying to Jesus: “Son, tell me – how is your mother?”
“He descended into hell” to take all those faithful people to the kingdom of heaven.
But what does that expression mean for us? I would like to present two lessons. And here is the first: there is no wall, there is no door that we human beings can make that the Lord is unable to come through.
Some years ago, Paul was my barber, and seeing Paul every couple of weeks, we became friends. Paul was a good Catholic man. He was an adult altar server at St. John’s Cathedral. I got to know Paul’s wife and their son.
And then about thirteen years ago I got the sad news that Paul had apparently taken his own life.
Paul’s sudden death came as a surprise to me and to other people who knew him and loved him. Apparently Paul had set up an internal wall and on his side there was a personal hell which he felt he could not cope with any longer. But even at that moment of despair, Jesus was there with Paul.
There is a famous painting by Holman Hunt called, “Light of the World.” It is an illustration of a quote from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” [Rev. 3: 20]. It depicts a man on his side of the door all crouched in fear and in the shadows. On the other side is Jesus holding a lamp and knocking. In that painting the artist put the door handle only on the inside. It conveys the message that Christ is standing there knocking, but we have to decide whether or not to let Him in.
Is that accurate theology? Not entirely. Not in the light of today’s readings. St. John told us in the second reading today: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that God loved us, and sent His Son as expiation [as forgiveness] for our sins.” In other words, God has loved us first.
In the Gospel Jesus says: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.”
And so the first lesson is this: “He descended into hell.” There is no wall, there is no door that we human beings can make that the Lord is unable to come through.
And the second lesson is this: if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we must descend into the hells of other people to help them along too.
I use for my example Pope John XXIII, now called Saint John XXIII. When he was first elected pope, he visited a prison in the city of Rome and he told the prisoners, “You couldn’t come to see me, so I came to see you!”
John XXIII told them, “There are three ways for men to lose money in Italy: farming, gambling and womanizing.” He said, “My dad chose the least interesting of those three ways – he was a farmer.” He went on to say that one of his brothers got caught poaching, and one of his uncles had done time in prison. He reassured the men, “We are all children of God. And I – I am your brother.”
One of the men, a convicted murderer, came up to John XXIII and asked, “Is there hope of forgiveness for me?” John XXIII answered that question not with words but with a deed. He embraced that prisoner – he gave him a warm hug.
John XXIII descended into their hell to show them that there was a place in the Lord’s heart for them.
Open your heart to the Lord. Let Him descend into your life – into whatever personal hell might be there. There is no wall, there is no door that we human beings can make that the Lord is unable to come through.
He is with us, and if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we must descend into the hells of other people to help them along too. Maybe by showing some kindness, some compassion, offering a listening ear… perhaps even with a warm hug.
They are mysterious words: “He descended into hell.” But they give us the Lord’s reassurance that He is with us on our pilgrimage through life, and they give us His own example for us to follow.