Descent into Hell

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40 OSB).

2013_11_15_00_03Jonah’s flight from God brings him to a point in time when he must make a decision. He can choose between continuing to hide, or offering himself to save the seafarers onboard the ship. Just as Christ sought to “let this cup pass from me,” Jonah sought another path. But in the end, he saw that for the sake of others, he had to pass through suffering and, from his perspective, probably death.

Jonah, while reluctant, follows the pattern of Christ’s life. The Christian too, while reluctant, must follow this path. When initially given a command to obey, we disobey and hide from God. All of mankind has sinned and hidden from God as did both Jonah and Adam, but Christ, as the culmination of God’s winnowing action upon mankind, like the fine point of a needle, opens the way of salvation. Jonah’s descent into the depths of the sea for three days typifies Christ’s descent into hell and our descent in his wake through the baptism of water and of tears.

I recently experienced the joy of a friend’s wedding. Father Anthony, the presiding priest, observed in his homily that the act of martyrdom is present in each of the sacraments. Baptism demonstrates the death of self and the renewal into life brought by this sacrifice. Confession too contains the death and suffering of the self. The sacrament of marriage is replete with martyrdom and self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s spouse. And of course the ultimate sacrifice is evident in Christ’s self-offering of the Eucharist.

The prerequisite for redemption is sacrifice. Out of the depths of Christ’s sacrifice, he raises up his apostles unto the Gentiles just as Jonah ascended from the depths to the Ninevites. We must likewise, through our own self-sacrifice, ‘tradition’ the faith to our spiritual descendants. Saint Paul presents himself as a metaphor of Christ, revealing that he carries about in his own body the death of the Lord Jesus, that His life might be made manifest in his children (2 Corinthians 7-12). Like the risen Lord, Paul metaphorically dies so that his children might live. It is this continual cycle of death and rebirth that is the essence of tradition.

Ultimately, Christ’s resurrection and ascension culminate in our deification. Saint Athanasius the Great said that, “The Son of God became man that we might become god.” Christ, in his descent into death and ascent into life, ‘traditions’ unto us the purifying power of martyrdom and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in the outpouring of Pentecost. The purification experienced through martyrdom prepares us for the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Material persons are purified, sanctified, and deified. Bread and wine become God. Bones work miracles. The dead live.

The martyrs are those who have truly sacrificed everything for God. They are seeds who have been planted, died, and risen into true life. They have finally become human.

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

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