In the creed, we confess the mystery of the descent into hell. Diverse interpretations have been given to this truth. And it has been the subject of imaginative interpretations by poets and other artists. We might think of Handel’s “La Resurrezione,” or of Gibson’s graphic scene of the “harrowing of hell.”
But little attention is given to another truth--the ascent from hell. This was to be the definitive triumphal moment of the kingdom of evil. And as the darkness noted by the Gospel-writers at the time of the crucifixion, it was the time when it appeared that the powers of darkness had snuffed out the Light of the World:
Flame burst out of a sacred pit
Crushing the world with such a light
The day-sky fell to moonless black,
The Kingly sun to hateful night.
(Allan Tate, “The Cross”)
But Christ, by dying, truly conquered death. The true Light did not definitively disappear. Rather, it was to burst forth on the first Easter and continues to shine through the centuries.
We must, however, direct our prayerful gaze to the drama which took place on Calvary that first Good Friday and try to absorb the many lessons which the cross teaches. It is only in this way that we can truly “proclaim the death of the Lord” in our own lives.
I would begin by noting that Calvary calls attention to the many “deaths” the disciple is called to. We might begin with the symbolic death to sin and rising to new life in the Lord which baptism symbolizes. This is a lifelong process to be achieved. It demands a continuing dying to our self-will in order for our will and our hearts to be subsumed into the will and heart of God.
Each Eucharist is a call to another type of death. We must focus on the words: “Do this in memory of Me.” Christ did not say: “Repeat these words.” Rather He was emphasizing that like Himself we must be willing to empty ourselves in service to other: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus...He emptied Himself...” (Phil 3: 5-7).
Finally, there is the fact of physical death. While there are always certain unconscious fears and trepidation as we approach death, I would like to pause at Calvary and remind ourselves that this is Christ’s high priestly act -- the act whereby He reconciled earth and a broken humanity to heaven. But there is more. The Letter to the Hebrews notes that He now lives in heaven to intercede. And as He held us in His heart on the cross, so He still has us in His heart in heaven. And I will go further. Do you think that the Father, gazing at His Son’s wounds which He suffered out of love for us, can ignore His pleas on behalf of us?
Artists and others--as well as our traditional Stations of the Cross--note how Christ’s arms are nailed to cross. But as we look at them, we must concentrate on the fact that His arms are outstretched, signaling His desire to embrace the whole world.
On the one hand, such indicates the infinite nature of His love. But as He mentioned in His mystical dialogue with St. Margaret Mary, so often He receives only indifference. And we must constantly pray for those who fail to appreciate the lavish nature of God’s love.
On another level, it was the French mystic Pascal who stated that “Christ will be in His death-throes until the end of the world. We must not rest until that time.” Of course, he was referring to the mystical but real identification Christ Himself made with the poor and suffering of the world in Matthew 25. As we concentrate on Christ’s arms bound by nails and wood, we realize the challenge and nature of the cross in our day. We are called to un-crucify the suffering, hurting, contemporary Christ living in the poor, suffering, etc.
It was the poet Charles Williams who noted that the cross and the Lamb of God on that afternoon on Calvary both maintained their integrity. His exact words were:
“The frame and body maintained an awful likeness: Both maintained their integrity.”
Even in our day, the spirituality of the cross leads us to true and integral authenticity in the Christian life.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.