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My Lord, My God

There is a line in the Apostle's Creed which states "...and He descended into hell.."  What could this possibly mean?  The traditional explanation is that the gates of heaven were closed until Jesus died and rose, then after his resurrection he went into hell and freed all the souls of those who lived before he accomplished his paschal mystery.  But let's consider this through two other images.

First, a story; a tragic one.  Some years ago a family lost one of its children to suicide.  After the first attempt they rushed her to the hospital, surrounded her with loving care, tried to coax her out of her deadly depression.  In the end they failed; she killed herself despite all their efforts. Sometimes, as strong as human love can be, it stands helpless before a door it cannot open.

A second image is from today's Gospel.  After Jesus rises from the dead he appears to the disciples, who, as John describes them, are in a locked room, huddled together in fear.  There they (we) are: a wounded and unfaithful lot.  Not only did they abandon their master, they betrayed themselves.  Jesus comes right through the locked doors, stands, not only, in the middle of the room, but in the midst of their despair, and breathes out peace upon them.  Peace is the first gift of the Risen Christ.

What's the point here?  What is revealed here is that when we are so paralyzed by our fear and overcome by darkness that we can no longer help ourselves, when we have reached the stage where we can no longer open the door to let in life and light, God can still come through our locked doors, stand inside our fear and paralysis, and breathe out his peace. This is a love so strong that it melts this frozen fear of disciples and sends us on a mission of forgiveness and mercy.  As Augustine wrote, without forgiveness the Church does not exist.  And as Pope Francis reminds us, "Mercy is the name of God himself".

That is the love revealed in Jesus' paschal mystery.  Look at my hands, my feet and my side. Do not be unbelieving but believe. A love so strong that it can fully forgive its executioners, can pass through locked doors, melt frozen hearts, penetrate the walls of fear, and descend into our private hells, and precisely there breathe out his peace.  In the case of the person who committed suicide, she had reached a point where she was frozen inside of a private hell, behind doors neither her doctor nor family could open, begging her for a response she could no longer give.  But Jesus descended into hell, and I have no doubt that when she awoke on the other side she found Christ standing there breathing peace into her fear and darkness.

Someone describes watching a man standing before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. into which the names of 58,000 Americans, who sacrificed their names, are carved. Slowly the man moved along the wall stopping now and then to run his fingers over the names until he found the one was looking for.  Tears were streaming down his face when touched the one he recognized.  The wall is a place of gathered memories. The name Thomas gave to Jesus, "my Lord and my God", was carved into our hearts at our baptism.  We need to often rub the fingers of our Christian memory over that name remembering that he descended into hell for us.

The doctrine of the "descent into hell" has been called the most consoling of all doctrines, in any religion.  The love of Christ on the cross is so strong that it can descend into any hell we can create, thaw out our frozen souls, and despite our fear can lead us into the peace of paradise.  The cross of Christ does not stand helpless before any locked door.

The Church

Monsignor Fred Nijem

Father Kevin O'Keefe
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Jim Hunt

Ron Simons

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