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SATURDAY HOMILY: He descended into hell

By Fr. G. Peter Irving III
March 30th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

By his saving death and his descent into hell, Jesus has brought the Gospel and the Cross to the furthermost reaches of existence itself.

LONG BEACH, CA (Catholic Online) - In his Chrism Mass homily, Pope Francis spoke about God's "anointed ones" and how this anointing makes them "men for others." Priests, he said, are not anointed for themselves but rather to bring that anointing, that healing balm, to "God's faithful people."

God's priests, said the pope, are "anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed." Pope Francis went on to cite Psalm 133 which refers to the anointing of Aaron. He stated that in this passage we have a good example of what "being for others" means.

"It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down upon the collar of his robe" (Psalm 133:2).

Commenting on this verse, the Holy Father said, "The image of spreading oil, flowing down from the beard of Aaron upon the collar of his sacred robe, is an image of the priestly anointing which, through Christ, the Anointed One, reaches the ends of the earth, represented by the robe."

This priestly anointing reaches to "ends of the earth," and later he reiterated, it "overflows down to the edges," to "the outskirts" of existence.

Pope Francis is obviously appealing to the Priests of the Church to get out of their comfort zones, be more evangelical, to be more open and welcoming of everyone without distinction, to be filled anew with a zeal for souls. Our attitude as priests should be this: "Out of a hundred souls we are interested in a hundred." (Furrow, 183) Needless to say, these words of our Holy Father can be applied to everyone in the Church, mutatis mutandis.

This is precisely what Jesus Christ our true High Priest and the model for all priests has done for us. When he stretched out his hands on the cross "with the gesture of an Eternal Priest" he did so embracing all souls who would receive him.

Suspended from the cross, he looked down the corridor of history extending from our first parents, Adam and Eve, all the way into the future to last man standing and he saw everyone of us and for each of us he suffered and died.

On this solemn day, on this Holy Saturday when we contemplate the lifeless body of Christ enclosed in the tomb, we recall how Jesus literally went to the "outskirts" of existence by his death on the cross and his descent into hell.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there." (631)

When in the Apostles' Creed we profess that Jesus descended into hell, this hell does not refer to the hell of the damned.

We read in the Catechism:

"Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God." (632)

In his First Letter, St. Peter tells us, "Put to death in the flesh, [Jesus] was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison ..." (3:19). About this passage, Blessed John Paul had the following to say:

"Obscure as it is, the Petrine text confirms [other Biblical texts] concerning the concept of the "descent into hell" as the complete fulfillment of the gospel message of salvation. It is Christ--laid in the tomb as regards the body, but glorified in his soul admitted to the fullness of the beatific vision of God--who communicates his state of beatitude to all the just whose state of death he shares in regard to the body." (General Audience, January 11, 1989)

In other words, the holy souls in the "bosom of Abraham" (also called in Catholic theology the "Limbo of the Fathers") who lived and died before Christ's redemptive act was accomplished were finally delivered from their captivity when Christ opened the gates of heaven to them by his sacrificial death on the Cross.

Blessed John Paul II elaborates: "The word of the Gospel and of the Cross reaches all, even those belonging to the most distant generations of the past, because all who have been saved have been made partakers in the Redemption, even before the historical event of Christ's sacrificial death on Calvary took place." (General Audience, January 11, 1989)

In the ancient Holy Saturday homily which is found in the Office of Reading in the Liturgy of the Hours, this moment of deliverance is wondrously described:

"What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son".

By his saving death and his descent into hell, Jesus has brought the Gospel and the Cross to the furthermost reaches of existence itself. May the graces of this Sacred Triduum in this Year of Faith embolden every member of the Church--priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful--to do the same. May we become joyful messengers of Christ's victory over sin and death to everyone we meet, even to those who live on the "edges" of our world.

May our Mother Mary, the Star of the New Evangelization, help us with her prayers.

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Fr. G. Peter Irving III is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is Pastor of Holy Innocents Church in Long Beach, California.

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