14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily for 03 July 2005
Rev. Frank Baiocchi
Have you ever heard of a method of prayer called “lucky dipping”? It works like this: You begin by praying to God for help. Then you let the Bible fall open to whatever page happens to open. Finally, with eyes tightly shut, you “dip” your finger down to touch the page. The verse your finger rests on becomes God’s answer to your prayer.
One day a man found himself in a heap of trouble. In desperation he brought out his Bible, prayed hard for guidance, let the Bible fall open, closed his eyes and “lucky dipped” into the Scripture. Opening his eyes, he read the verse that his finger rested upon: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Oh! Well, that couldn’t be God’s message, he mumbled to himself; so he shut his eyes and “dipped” his finger to the Bible once more. This time the verse said: “Go thou and do likewise.” …I’ve often thought that we’ve been too hard on poor Judas over the centuries. I know for certain we’ve been too hard on all the people who have died by their own hands.
Several years ago there was a woman who attempted suicide. She was 23 years old and living away from home. Her frightened, concerned family rushed to her side. They brought her home, got her the best medical and psychiatric care available and more importantly, rallied around her, trying in every way to bring her out of her suicidal depression. They were not successful. Two months later she did kill herself. She had descended into a place where no human love, no medicine or psychiatry could penetrate.
What hope do we have in circumstances like this? Humanly there isn’t any. Outside of faith, the suicidal person is lost to us and we are helpless to reach them. But inside of faith, there is hope – surprising hope! We have a belief within our Christian faith that is singularly the most consoling belief in all religion: the belief that Christ can descend into hell. Our Apostles’ Creed tells us: “Jesus descended into hell.”
What does this mean? We’re not always sure. One common interpretation says the sin of Adam and Eve closed the gates of heaven and they remained sealed until the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death opened the gates and Jesus himself, in the time between his death and resurrection, descended into hell (the actual word is Sheol: the Underworld) where all those who had died since the time of Adam somehow rested. He took them all to heaven. So his “descending into hell” in this interpretation refers to Jesus going into the Underworld after his death to rescue these souls.
But there is another interpretation, another understanding suggesting that Jesus’ descent into hell refers especially to the manner of his dying, to the depths of darkness and desolation he had to endure in the process of dying. Let me illustrate.
In Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, England there hangs a famous painting. It depicts Jesus holding a lantern. standing outside a door. It suggests that you and I are inside the door and we must open the door to let Jesus in. Otherwise he remains outside. There have been holy cards printed of this painting. But some people, seeing these holy cards, are haunted by the thought that one day they may be too despondent, too depressed, too paralyzed ever to open the door of their hearts and let Jesus in. And with that thought, they lose all hope.
But the Bible itself gives us a different picture. Remember the Gospel of John. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, he finds his disciples huddled in fear and despair inside a locked room. Unlike the painting in the London cathedral, Jesus does not stand outside the door and knock. He does not wait for the disciples to come to open the door. He goes right through the locked doors. He stands inside their huddled circle of fear and breathes out peace to them. He isn’t helpless to enter when they are too frightened and depressed to open the door for him. He can descend into their hell by going right through the doors they have locked in their fear.
This is also true for the various private hells into which we and those we love descend. We may reach a point in our lives where others can no longer reach into our pain to relieve it, where we are too wounded and paralyzed to let anyone in, as perhaps Judas was. Human care and concern can no longer reach us. But Jesus can still enter these locked doors of our minds and hearts. He can descend into our hell to breathe peace upon us and make things right.
Our belief that Jesus did descend into hell and will continue to do so, is the single most consoling doctrine in all religion. It gives us hope for ourselves and for our loved ones even when, humanly speaking, there is no hope. Sometimes, because of illness or difficult circumstances, someone we love dearly descends into a place where we can no longer reach them. But all is not lost. Jesus descends into our hells and he breathes out a peace that heals all hurts. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened. I will refresh you!”