Saturday, April 15, 2006

He Descended Into Hell

I want to take you on a little journey—to Hell… and back! A journey with Christ, the crucified One, to those who were anxiously waiting for the Redeemer, the Son of the living God, in the abode of the dead. Christ is also coming to those who had chosen Hell for their home, the demons and all unrepentant evildoers. The gatekeepers and rulers of Hell await the Lord in fear, for He has come to destroy their dominion. I’m really not worthy or able to take you there myself, so I’ve asked the French poet and spiritual writer, Paul Claudel, to be our guide on this descent to Hell.

“Listen to the noise of these gates being torn off their hinges, these sections of wall giving way, steel being dismantled, these huge mobs of bottled fiends, who screech and clamor like a pack of boars, laid open to their very vitals by the crack of the divine lash. Someone approaches in a roll of thunder: He is coming! He is drawing near; he is almost here—someone irresistible, inexorable, who will ride roughshod over all this swarming bestiality! The very roots of things are filled with dread. It is as if someone were shaking the tree of life with his two bare hands…

“Into this pit of corruption, this larder of corpses, this morgue, this warehouse of coffins, this garden of skulls, this valley of the shadow of death, Jesus Christ suddenly brings his presence, his unequaled power, his poignant fragrance, his sweet and austere majesty, his invincible and inexorable light, at once merciless and desired. Not long ago the door of the grave had been violated for the first time, and at the summons of that terrible voice and that awful right hand there was seen rising from the tomb a Lazarus who was half-consumed. But now it is no longer death who comes to confront God and offer to his eyes this handiwork that is not his, it is God himself in the person of his Second Power who, availing himself of this opening, descends toward death and sin, and comes to cross-examine Chaos.

“It is truly he, it is the sun we had heard about! Forward, [O Christ], divine pilgrim! There is many a swamp, many a quagmire yet to be crossed before you reach your destination, many a tenacious river where some unnamable and viscous slime darkly flows. …At the central knot of our nature, almost embedded in the rock, as deeply rooted as the stump of an oak through all the geological ages, you place your hand at last on the shoulder of the ancient Adam.

“When Jesus walked through the public square of Capernaum or when, emerging from the synagogue, he was greeted by that whole bazaar and clinic of the blind, crippled, epileptic, and leprous, which people took pains to shove under his nose, what an uproar carried to the booths and back rooms of the shops when all this humanity, still a little unsteady, but strengthened and cleansed, began to advance behind him. But now it is no longer a few dozen unfortunates, a small proportion of the vast swarming misery of an oriental town; now it is all eyes that are opened simultaneously, myriads at a time; it is untold generations that he reaches and revives, one after the other, like the sun when it appears at the eastern gates and illuminates a continent in one flash: a general stampede of humanity, the whole vast pocket of darkness that evacuates its population! The world meets and recognizes itself; the whole human family is reorganized under the eye of God…

“Presently he will appear in the flesh to the world of the flesh; but today it is in spirit that he will appear to the world of spirits, be it those demons who by their denial of God have made themselves a fitting habitation, or those untold generations of the disembodied, surrounding Adam and Eve, that root transplanted from Eden, and bound to them by the teeming fertility of the original sin. They have been waiting thousands of years from deliverance from—or confirmation of—their punishment… He descended into hell, to those dwelling below.

“Jesus came to bring deliverance to the multitudes below who awaited him ‘in the shadow of death.’ Let us clearly understand the meaning of this phrase. There is death, that second death spoken of in the Apocalypse, which is hell proper; and there is the shadow of death, that is, not death itself, but the shadow it casts, the effect produced by its proximity, that interception of the light, that paralysis resulting from a loss of direction, that accumulated sense of our own weight. We read in the Book of Acts that the shadow of Peter was sufficient to bring about healing and life; so the shadow of satan, the dark area described by his intervention, is sufficient to spread around him paralysis and cold.

“[But] the Father does not abandon his child at the bottom of the well; the shepherd will contrive to recover the sheep who has fallen into the mouth of the cistern. ‘I will descend,’ says Jacob the patriarch, ‘to my son in the nether-world.’ …Scripture shows the divine mercy to be eternally vigilant for any opportunity to outwit its justice.

“For these refugees from hell on Easter morning, it is the whole landscape of eternity that each new arrival must learn to survey for himself… As for us, we will remain bound to Jesus Christ, as intimately associated as possible with that group of patriarchs and prophets who prepared his way and can now no longer be separated from him.

“Let us lie still with our eyes closed a moment before dawn breaks on the day of the Resurrection. It is yet night, but already someone is stirring in two or three houses in Jerusalem. Lamps are being lit, and women are hurriedly dressing and combing their hair. The Sabbath is over… It is no longer Passover; it is Easter! Look, listen: in the Hebraic stillness there takes place, at the joining of three roads, a meeting of veiled women who exchange questions in hushed voices. ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?’ Who will take it away? The very fragrance they bear provides the answer. It is this irresistible quality of hope in their hearts, this emanation of mysterious ingredients prepared in the bosom of the night by the very hands of the dawn. Stored up for centuries, slowly expanding, this sacred chemistry that just now rose from sleep advances to triumph over death. As for the remaining events of that wondrous morning…they reverberate to this day in every church in Christendom.

“‘O death! Where is your sting?’ The grave is empty. ‘O truly blessed night, you alone were worthy to know the hour and the moment when Christ was risen from hell!’ Death is vanished; the grave, deserted; time now exists only to flow into eternity: Is this not an event that resounds to the very ends of the earth, shaking all foundations and robbing humanity of all possibility of yielding to the ancient despair? It is done; I promise you that all that is at an end! Ah, I swear that the day is come!”

Amen! Alleluia!