Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Following up on last week’s article on prayers for the dead, it is helpful to ask what the Apostle’s Creed means when it says that Jesus Christ “descended into hell” before rising on the third day and how that descent is consistent with His promise to the repentant thief “You will be with Me this day in paradise.” On this point, as on so many others, it is important to remember the original meaning of terms used long ago. In this case, the phrase was part of the Apostles’ Creed, which as the name implies was written during the time of the Apostles in the first century. This creed, which was originally in Greek, says that Jesus descended into “Hades,” which in turn is Sheol in Hebrew and inferna in Latin. Those terms meant simply the abode of all the dead before Jesus’
death, whether good or bad. Because none of the dead could be in heaven until Jesus merited forgiveness of our sins through His death on the Cross, those among the dead who were open to God’s grace were in a place that would later be called “the limbo of the just.” Thus the descent into hell does not imply a descent to the place for the condemned, but rather a descent to the place of the dead. See Catechism 633-637. In fact, some translations of the Apostle’s Creed say that Jesus “descended to the dead.”

This reference to Jesus descending into hell, therefore, means first that Jesus really died and that His soul really dwelt for a time in the abode of the dead. See Catechism 632. When among the dead who were in the limbo of the just, Jesus preached the Gospel to them and then brought them into paradise. Those alive during His earthly ministry could hear Him preach to them; and we now hear His words in the Scriptures and the sacraments. The dead were not deprived of this benefit, but also heard His voice proclaiming salvation to all of them who were willing to accept His message, repent of sins and receive His grace. See 1 Pet. 4:6.

But for us now, there is also an important implication. As Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his book entitled Eschatology, because Jesus truly experienced the pain and loneliness of the separation of body and soul and departure from the earth, we can assure those who are dying that Jesus will be with them along their final path. And when our time comes, we will know that He will be with us through the clouds and mystery of death to guide us onto final glory.

Friends In High Places

This Saturday is the Feast of the Archangels and Tuesday will be the Memorial of the Guardian Angels. It is thus a good occasion for a brief summary of the Catholic understanding and devotion to angels. An angel is a pure spirit created to glorify God forever in heaven. The English word “angel” comes from the Greek and Latin terms for messenger, for the Bible often presents angels as messengers and guardians from God. See, e.g., Gen.19, 22:11; Zech. 1:7-17; Matt. 1:20, 2:19; Luke 1:10-20, 26-38; Heb. 2:2.

Being pure spirits, they are magnificent in splendor and glory, with greater majesty and power than any human even imaginable on this earth. Thus, when people realize that they have seen an angel, they often believe that they will die from being overwhelmed by glory. See, e.g., Judges 6:22, 13:22; Tob. 12:16; Dan. 9:17-19. As a result, among the first words an angel addresses to a human are frequently, “Be not afraid.” See, e.g., Tob. 12:16; Luke 1:13, 2:10. And because angels are so close to God, when people in the Bible see them, they often describe the occasion as seeing the Lord. See, e.g., Gen. 16:13, 32:31; Ex. 3:2-6; see also Rev. 19:10, 22:9-10.

With the majesty and holiness of God with such great power, angels are at the same time the guardians of God’s people, but also very dangerous if approached without the proper respect. See, e.g., Gen. 19:11; Ex. 23:20-24; Num. 22:22-35; 2 Pet. 2:10. Thus, the Book of Revelation thus describes them as both: (1) guiding and guarding God’s people, especially in their worship, but also (2) announcing God’s wrath upon the world. See, e.g., Rev. 7:1-8, 8:3-10:11, 16:1-21.

When these spirits were created, they had one choice, for or against God. The angels who chose to serve God became what we call angels and praise Him forever in heaven with magnificent splendor beyond human understanding. That choice for God required divine grace, for no one can approach God without His special favor; but, as with Mary, that grace was one of attaining perfection, not forgiveness of sins, for the angels in heaven never sinned. God also sends some angels to earth to serve us and carry out His will.

See Catechism 329-35. And so each of us has a guardian angel to guide, protect and pray with us on this earthly pilgrimage. And, as C.S. Lewis points out in one of his books, we each hope to meet one day the angels and say to them, not “Who are you?” but rather “It was you all along whom I sensed as my celestial protector and friend.”

The Wedding Feast of Cana and the Springtime of Grace

This week we resume the reflections upon lessons from the life of Mary and in particular focus upon the wedding feast at Cana. See John 2.

After Jesus’ baptism and 40 day preparation in the desert, some disciples joined Him knowing that He could give them truths from heaven. When Mary attended a wedding in Cana in Galilee, she asked Jesus and His disciples to join her and the family.

In that era, Jewish wedding feasts lasted for up to a week; and sometime during that week, the wine started to run short. Mary, ever attentive to the needs of others, brought the problem to Jesus. Jesus seemed at first reluctant to perform a miracle, saying that His hour had not yet come. As the great American evangelist Fulton Sheen described, Jesus was pointing out to Mary that, if she asked for this miracle, His public ministry would begin, and with it His way to Calvary.

Mary did ask for the miracle, saying, to the waiters “Do whatever He tells you.” Jesus then had the waiters fill with water large jars that were meant for washing and take it to the head waiter. The waiters, probably thinking that it was complete folly or a joke, did so all the same.

Likely worrying about the wine situation and not knowing what has just been happening, the head waiter was astonished to taste this former water, which Jesus had made the best of wine. Thinking that the families have been hiding their best wine, he sought an explanation from the groom, who was himself as puzzled and happily surprised as the head waiter. This miracle, which joins Marian and family devotion, compassion, humility and even humor, launched Jesus’ public ministry. In this event, we can see God reversing the Fall and original sin.

Instead of Eve’s attentiveness to the serpent and temptation, Mary teaches us to be attentive to families and the needs of others. Reversing the failure of Adam and Eve to turn to God in prayer when they were being tempted and then when they sinned, Mary shows us how to turn to Jesus and be willing to abide by His instructions, knowing them to be the path (often in mysterious ways) to great joy.

Making up for Adam’s weakness and failure to resist sin, Jesus clarifies the issue for Mary, and then is willing to perform, in a subtle way, the miracle she requested. Revering the cooperation in sin, and then conflict in blame, of Adam and Eve, the new Adam and Eve cooperate for a new couple. And, if we are willing, they will also cooperate together for our families and the family of God to bring forth a new springtime of grace.

The Presentation of Jesus and of Us

This week we return to reflections that we can draw from the life of Mary, and in particular focus on the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple, which is also the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary. In accordance with the ancient Jewish law, and in a beginning fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophesy that the Lord would return to His Temple, Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth and offered a sacrifice of two small birds for God’s mercy shown toward them.

Upon making the offering, they were met by Simeon and Anna, who had been awaiting the Messiah for many years. Simeon and Anna praised God and told others about the newborn king. Simeon also spoke to Mary about the destiny of Jesus for the rise and fall of nations, and of her own sorrow to come which would lead to the revelation of mysteries of the human heart.

The Gospel of Luke does not mention it, but it is more than ironic that the Holy Family was there in the capital right near Herod, who either was, or would soon be, plotting the death of Jesus. From this glorious and humble event, we can draw lessons about our relationship with Jesus and our ability to present Him to the world.

To begin with, the requirements of the faith should not be seen as a burden, but rather as the ability to share, with the Holy Family, the prayers and way of life that unite us as a people of God throughout time and space. Second, if even Mary listened to and learned from Simeon and Anna, representatives of humble and prayerful fidelity, so we should recognize our need to listen to others, especially those who are humble and prayerful, and learn from the living tradition of the faith.

Third, as with Simeon and Anna, we often have to wait a long time to see how it is that God is working in the world, and how our own efforts contribute to His kingdom. But with them, if we are always open to the presence of God, we will experience His light and be able to share it with others. And finally, we await the day in which Mary, Joseph and all of the saints present each of us to God our Father in the heavenly Temple. Then we will, with Mary, rejoice for all time, declaring, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47

The Ascension, Mary, Mother’s Day and Holy Communion

Next week, this article will resume discussions of how Mary’s life provides us lessons for our own relationship with her Son.

Here we will consider four events that come together on this Sunday:

(1) the Solemnity of the Ascension; (2) Mothers’ Day; (3) the 101st anniversary of the first appearance of Our Lady of Fatima; and (4) the joy as one of our parishioners is receiving First Holy Communion.

The convergence of these happy celebrations exemplify how the Church unites different sides of our human longings, in this case, the desire for a kingdom with a glorious and graceful king and a holy and powerful queen, but also for a family in which our holy mother and our Divine brother share their lives with us. More specifically, by His Ascension into heaven, Jesus pointed the way to a greater kingdom. If He had remained visibly on earth, we would tend to look merely for an earthly paradise. But ascending into heaven, and ruling over the Church from there, Jesus calls for us to look upwards towards that magnificent realm. But He does not leave us behind. Instead, He is with His Church on earth and allows us to share His very life, especially when we receive Him and share His divine life through Holy Communion. And Jesus did not want to rule alone in heaven.

For every complete kingdom needs a queen; and every complete family needs a mother. Thus, Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life to reign with Christ in glory. But she also did not want to leave us behind, nor rule only by glory. And so she joins with us on earth, not only as queen, but also as Mother of the Church and of each one of us. Mary has demonstrated this queenly majesty, and also motherly care, by appearing at times to people in the Church, expressing the compassionate love of God and of His angels and saints, but also the royal guidance to know that we will have peace and joy only by adhering to His law and repenting of sins. One such Marian apparition was given to the children at Fatima for each of six months, beginning on May 13, 101 years ago.

As we celebrate that event, occurring this year with the Ascension, Mother’s Day, and this parish’s joy at Holy Communion, let us always remember both the majestic glory of God’s kingdom and the personal love of God our Father, Jesus our brother, Holy Mother Church, and Mary the mother of Jesus, the Church and each of us.

Lessons from the Magi

Having considered lessons from the shepherds as the first visitors to Jesus, we now turn to the magi, who arrived in Bethlehem a few weeks later in an event the Church celebrates as Epiphany. The magi, historically known as Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior, came from Persia, Syria, Arabia, or some combination of them. They were not Jewish and had little understanding of the Messianic prophesies.

But they were open to the guidance of God, who spoke to them through a mysterious light. When they came to Jerusalem, they understandably expected the people there to be celebrating their new born savior king. But instead they found indifference by many people and the deceitful plotting of King Herod, who was afraid of his own savior, seeing only a threat to his power. But when the magi came to Bethlehem, Mary joyfully welcomed these unlikely visitors. Apparently Joseph was initially away working to support the Family, but would join them soon.

The magi offered to Jesus and His family their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And then, after celebrating their time with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they returned home as the first missionaries to far off lands.

We can take lessons from this event both from the perspective of the magi and from the perspective of Mary. Like the magi, we also come into the presence of Christ, welcomed by Mary. And she helps us offer our gifts to her Son in a worthy fashion. Gold was a practical gift and one fit for a king; it reflects our reverence for Jesus as king and the offering of practical gifts for Him and the family of God. Frankincense was a fine material used in worship; it reflects our offering of prayers and lives of holiness. And myrrh was for healing injuries and anointing corpses, including its use at Jesus’ burial.

It was a strange gift for a baby, but it reflects the wisdom that we must offer, with Jesus and Mary, sacrifices and struggles as a part of our journey to heaven. And, with Jesus and Mary, we should also be willing to welcome people who, like the magi, are unexpected, knowing that God likes to work in surprising ways. This humble offering of our lives to Christ, and our recognition of the gifts that others offer to us and God’s people, helps us make the glory of Epiphany present in the world today as the Church on earth strives to be a first promise of the gathering of all nations, under our king Jesus and mother Mary, in the realms of eternal light.

Elijah and the Quiet Voice of God

The last five articles have described some Old Testament precedents for the 40 days of Lent.

Here we will consider a less famous 40-day time, the journey of Elijah to Mount Horeb, where he heard the voice of God instructing him on how to prepare for a brighter future. Elijah was the greatest prophet of his time, the early to middle 9th century B.C., when the weak Ahab was king of Israel and the wicked Jezebel was queen. At one point, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal by calling down fire from heaven upon his sacrifice at Mount Carmel.

Then, at his prayer, the long drought that had been afflicting Israel ended. The people temporarily turned back to the true God. But then Jezebel, furious at the destruction of the priests of Baal, sent assassins to kill Elijah; and no one sought to stop her. And so Elijah went into hiding and told God that his ministry seemed to be a failure. But God instructed him to make a 40 day pilgrimage to Mount Horeb, which is also Mount Sinai.

There upon the mount, as Elijah waited for the voice of God, he saw a colossal storm, a tremendous earthquake, and an immense fire around the mountain. But God was not in the storm, earthquake or fire. Elijah then heard a quiet whispering voice, and knew it was God speaking to him. God told him to appoint new kings for Israel and the neighboring Aram, and to anoint Elisha as the new prophet. Elijah then continued his ministry with greater power until the time when he was brought up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Elijah’s pilgrimage to Mount Horeb exemplifies the importance of listening to the quiet voice of God in the midst of the world, and so receiving wisdom and strength for the future.

As Blessed Pope Paul VI said in a homily on the Feast of the Holy Family, “we need this wonderful state of mind [silent prayer] beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times.”

The world may often be hostile to the faith, but God calls us like Elijah to respond with faith, hope and charity. To do so, it is crucial that we take time in silence away from the world to hear the voice of God giving us the wisdom and strength needed for us to discern and to carry out His plans for a better world.

Jonah, Nineveh and the Power of Repentance

Last week’s article described the prayer of Moses during his second forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, during which he prayed for the forgiveness of his people after had worshipped the golden calf. This article will discuss another dramatic forty-day prayer for forgiveness, the repentance of Nineveh at the words of Jonah.

During the mid-700s B.C., God sent Jonah to proclaim His word to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Israelites and most of the neighboring countries looked upon Nineveh and Assyria as the very epitome of an evil empire, having dominated and even destroyed nations around it. Most people, like Jonah, would have been happy to see it destroyed. And God did in fact send Jonah to Nineveh to warn it of impending destruction in in 40 days, a commission he finally accepted after trying desperately to evade it. And then the totally unexpected happened. Nineveh took the short time left and repented like no nation has before or since.

The people acknowledged their sins, fasted and wore sackcloth, imposing this penance even on their livestock. Recognizing this repentance, God spared Nineveh and enabled the city to prosper once again, at least until later arrogant generations led it to demise of Nineveh and the empire in 616-612 B.C. Jesus described this repentance of Nineveh as a prefigurement of the repentance of people and nations that would be a central sign of His divine commission. See Matt. 12:39-41, 16:4, Luke 11:29-32.

That sign continues to this day for us, for our neighbors and for each nation. On the one hand, the repentance and restoration of Nineveh demonstrates that we should never let sin have the last word; God, often through us, speaks to all people and can bring anyone to repentance. We ourselves can be fully free from sin and we are called to share that message with each person we meet. At any time, we may, like Jonah, bring anyone from sin to repentance. But also, as with Nineveh, conversion is not once for all time; it is an ongoing process.

When Nineveh turned from repentance back to sin in generations after Jonah, it sank and was destroyed. Nineveh thus stands as both a sign of hope and a lesson. We must ever hope and strive for conversion for ourselves, for others and for every nation. This conversion does not end during this life, but is a continual journey towards the gathering of all nations in the eternal Jerusalem.

Return to the Mount Sinai for Love of the People

The last article described the first time Moses ascended Mount Sinai for 40 days, when he received the law and a vision of the glory of God.

This article will take lessons from his second, and more poignant, ascent up the mountain, when he asked the Lord to forgive His people. The first ascent up Mount Sinai was glorious, at least until Moses came down from the mountain. At that point he discovered that the people had returned to paganism, made a golden calf, and worshipped it, an image of the worship of gold that has afflicted civilizations throughout history. Moses sharply rebuked the people and destroyed the golden calf.

But, when God threatened to destroy the Chosen People and make of Moses a new nation, Moses went up the mountain a second time for 40 days of prayer and supplication, asking God to forgive His people. God then spared the people, although warning that this sin would be a burden on their future. See Ex. 32:1-35; Duet. 9:7 – 10:10.

In handing on the guidance from God, in opposing idolatry, and in his sacrifices and prayer of reparation, Moses was the model of true patriotism. As the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote in a chapter entitled “The Flag of the World” of his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, there are two vices opposed to true patriotism, both of which involve indifference.

One error is involves condemning what is wrong with one’s homeland without any real love for it, and perhaps even with a condescending delight. The other error is to support whatever the nation does, without concern for right or wrong. Real patriotism involves desiring that one’s nation succeed, and deserve to succeed, that one’s nation be both good and great.

Likewise, Christian charity calls for this love for all people. And, when we offer prayers, sacrifices and good deeds, particularly during Lent, we are not only making up for our own sins, but also repairing damage in the world around us.

Through the sacraments, our prayers and repentance receive the full power of Jesus Christ, a power that even Moses did not yet have. As Moses and the prophets were the greatest patriots of Israel, always calling that nation to the glory that God wished for it, so Christians have ever called their nations to their unique place in the kingdom of God. And the faithful can, by our prayers, sacrifices and good deeds, make of this land truly “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Lessons From The Great Flood

Last week, this article outlined the Biblical foundations for the 40 days of Lent. This article will address the first of these foundations, the Great Flood. As described in Genesis, civilization had
become corrupt, resulting in the rise of the Nephalim, who had great power, which they wielded for evil causes. Noah resisted that corrupt generation by justice, innocence and “walking with God,” indicating an active prayer life. Warned by God to prepare for the coming flood, Noah patiently built the ark, and no doubt endured the ridicule of neighbors, as he waited for the time to be fulfilled. After a long time, 40 days of rain was followed by 40 more days of increased flooding in a deluge that destroyed everything except Noah’s family and the animals with them.

After the flood, and a final 40 day time of waiting, this family then launched a new civilization, one branch of which would lead to the Chosen People. The most likely historical basis for this account is either flooding that occurred in Mesopotamia about 4000 B.C. or flooding that occurred in the Black Sea region about 7500 B.C., either of which would have been enough to destroy an entire civilization.

As with other events in the Bible, the account of the Great Flood speaks to us here and now. On one level, one can see in Noah’s ark, as St. Augustine did, an image of the Church, which carries people through the tumults of history into successive new eras, and in fact brings each faithful soul through the waters of death to new and pure realms. One can also, as the liturgy of Baptism does, draw an analogy between the Great Flood and the waters of baptism, and the grace of God generally, that “make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.” We can also take from Noah an inspiration to stand fast with God, who alone can save, rather than give in to the prevailing tastes of the world.

The flood can be a sign of God’s judgment, but it is also as an example of how human sinfulness leads of its own accord to chaos, which destroys civilization, unless the grace of God intervenes. In these and many ways, this narrative supports many themes of Lent, including cooperation with the divine grace to purify us of sins, courage and patience in prayer, justice and purity, and trust in God to guide us through the storms of life to the new heavens and the new earth.