Easter Season

Hellbender

“He descended into hell.”

What a cryptic phrase from the Apostles Creed!  What do we mean when we say these words at Mass every Sunday, or when we begin the Rosary? Did Jesus really go to hell?  Or, was it Sheol?  Or Hades?  Or the place of the just who could not enter heaven until Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins? Is there still the possibility of eternal damnation, or is “hell” merely an antiquated concept that the Church has outgrown because of Vatican II?  For answers let us consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 631 to 635.

The phrase, “He descended into hell,” must be considered in tandem with what immediately follows: “On the third day He rose again.”  As the Catechism states, “The Apostle’s Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth.” [CCC631] Here we see the “both/and” dichotomy of the Catholic faith: Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  An easy trap to fall into is to focus only on one over the other.  One only has to see latest news stories coming out of Egypt or Syria to see that man is capable of great evil, but is his nature totally depraved?  Good Friday without Easter Sunday? Or the opposite end of the spectrum which some have termed “Christianity Lite” for those whose comfortable lives give them the promise of heaven without the reality of hell, or forgiveness without repentance? The truth lies between the two extremes.  All of humanity was forever changed because “on the third day He rose again,” but there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, and our willful embrace or rejection of this metaphysical reality effects how we live (or should be living).

A Catholic’s affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead presupposes that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection.” [CCC632] That is, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.”  But, by descending to the dead, did Jesus destroy the hell of eternal damnation? Oh, that the demands of faith could be that easy!  No, Jesus descended to the dead “to free the just who had gone before him.” [CCC633].  “He descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” [CCC632].  So where is the “there?”

We shouldn’t think of hell as a place, but as a state of the soul in relation to God.  Biblical terms of “Sheol” and “Hades” are synonymous – the former is in Hebrew, and the latter in Greek.  Both are the “abode of the dead,” but this description still evokes the idea of a place.  Matters of the soul are difficult to envision, so we use imagery to help grasp metaphysical realities.  The souls in the “abode of the dead” are “deprived of the vision of God,” and this is true for the evil or righteous alike.  Jesus went for the holy souls who awaited their Savior “in Abraham’s bosom,” from the parable of the poor man Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31].  Remember, in this parable, reference is made to the resurrection of the dead.  As the parable teaches: belief must begin with Moses and the Prophets, because “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:31]. 

Believers and unbelievers alike can agree that Jesus was killed.  But those who believe that Jesus is God must then logically conclude that God died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. But, no! God cannot die!  One might then conclude incorrectly that “Jesus cannot be God because God cannot die.” Or another false belief will arise: that Jesus never really died, but was taken down from the cross before it was too late.  

How do we solve this riddle that Jesus Christ is God, and that “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried?” Again, from the Catechism: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead” to “open heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” [CCC635]  

Our discussion has now brought us into the metaphysical realm where images to not work.  What is the soul? What makes a person divine?  These questions are beyond the scope of this article.  Sufficient for now must be the simple faith and belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man.  He is a divine person who has a human soul.  The two are united and inseparable, and because God does not die, for He is Life Itself, after the Crucifixion, God descended into hell to release all who were waiting for the messianic promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled.  Not even death could contain Him, so we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory?  O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].

The Resurrection itself is too important an event in history to celebrate for one day only, which is why the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter, culminating with Divine Mercy Sunday.    And, although Lent is forty days, Easter is fifty, culminating with Pentecost!

As we celebrate the most central mysteries of our faith during this holiest of liturgical seasons, let us all raise a glass to and be grateful for the unfathomable mercy of Jesus.  And, for those in the Washington, DC area, please join us Sundays during the Easter Season to celebrate at the most aptly named place for such an occasion: The Hellbender Brewing Company.

 

In the Place of Simon the Cyrenian

Welcome to the first week of Easter.

Last week we experienced the most profound story in human history. We sat with Jesus and the apostles at the last supper. We watched Jesus walk His passion. We wept with the wailing women and we stood at the foot of the cross with Mary and the beloved John as we heard Christ say, “It is finished” and bow His head and give up His spirit (John 19:30).

We mourned the death of Jesus as He was laid in the tomb, and we then rejoiced with Mary Magdalene and ran to the empty tomb with Peter and John. Rejoice, our Lord is risen! Our debt has been paid, alleluia!

Now what?

I am always struck by the profound beauty of the Church’s liturgies during Holy Week. As we remember the Paschal mystery of our Lord my heart is stirred and I am moved at my core. When the Son rises on Easter Sunday I rejoice and am glad. But then I wonder, what is next, where do I go from here?

On Good Friday as I watched the Passion of the Christ, the character of Simon the Cyrene, for the first time struck me in his importance. Up until then I had always passed Simon off as a supporting character, an unfortunate bystander pressed into service, but nothing more. Yet as I reflected on the Passion this year I realized that I am Simon. We are Simon.

Every time we pray the Stations of the Cross, we are Simon. We are walking the Passion with our Lord. Simon experienced the Passion of our Lord in the most intimate way, in immediate proximity to Jesus. He was with Jesus during his last hours. He looked into the bruised and bloody face of Jesus only inches away from his own. When we celebrate the liturgies of Holy Week we too are walking with Christ intimately, and this walk transforms us.

I wonder what happened to Simon after he finished helping carry the cross. Atop Calvary, Christ and the Cross had reached their destination, Simon’s service was no longer needed. Did he run away, or did he stay and watch? We do not have any explicit biblical description of what happened to Simon after helping carry the cross, but I assure you, that experience transformed Simon. Imagine what he must have been thinking as he was pressed to carry the cross. He must have wondered who this condemned man was. Why did he have a crown of thorns? Why was was his body so scourged before he was to be crucified? Why are some weeping and others are jeering? Had Simon heard of Jesus through stories before he helped carry the cross? He must have been confused and pondered what was happening. What must have transpired when he looked into the eyes of the Son of God so closely?

How could Simon not be transformed by carrying the cross, weighed down by our sins, alongside our savior Jesus? How can you experience so closely the suffering of our Lord and not be changed? That experience would have stuck with Simon for a very long time. While we do not know exactly what happened to Simon after his experience, we can reflect on ourselves after we experience this same story. After we have witnessed the Passion of our Lord each Holy Week, what do we do next, how are we transformed? When we are faced with the story of the Passion we cannot leave the same, we are changed. The question we must ask ourselves is, will I run or will I stay?

Once we experience Jesus our lives are changed. We cannot help that fact. Yes we can turn away and return to our old life, but that experience will always be calling to us. We cannot shake the nagging story of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.

Hope is how we are transformed by Christ. As you reflect upon your own life, do not despair, but hope! If you find yourself like Peter, having denied Jesus, do not despair, Jesus loves you and offers you forgiveness just as he did to Peter. Or perhaps you find yourself more like John the Apostle at the foot of the cross, rejoice in your closeness to the Lord and hope in his resurrection! Perhaps you are Simon the Cyrenian, you have experienced the Passion, you are changed, but you do not understand what it all means. Embrace the uncertainty, trust in the Lord and let your life be transformed.

In the Gospel of Mark, we are given the name of Simon the Cyrene as well as his two sons, Alexander and Rufus. This begs the question, how would Mark know the names of Simon and his family? This is strong evidence that after the crucifixion Simon the Cyrene and his family became followers of Christ and were known by the apostles and other members of the early Church, so much so that it would be important enough for Mark to use their names in his account of the Gospel that was written circa 70 AD.

So, now what? Just as we do not have a written account of Simon the Cyrenian’s life after his experience with Jesus, your story is not yet written either. Today we are living in the glory of the resurrection. You have witnessed the Passion of the Lord and you know the end, Jesus is risen! Jesus suffered the Passion for you. In his resurrection we are freed from sin and death. Let your life be transformed, and as we walk away from Calvary, as Simon the Cyrenian did, let us continue to walk with the Lord. Where where you walk?