The Second Reading for the First Sunday of Lent this weekend is taken from the First Letter of St. Peter; you can read all of this coming Sunday’s readings over at the USCCB website. In this letter, St. Peter describes how Jesus died for all of our sins, even though He Himself was sinless, so that we might all one day have the hope of eternal life in the presence of God. In this passage which we will hear at mass this weekend, there is an unusual reference that over the centuries has led to some substantial debate among various theologians, commentators, and scholars, where St. Peter describes the actions of Christ: “He also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient.”
For a number of Catholic theologians, including St. Robert Bellarmine, the great Cardinal of the Counter-Reformation, this passage was understood to speak of Christ releasing the souls of those who had sinned and died before His coming, but who were not condemned for eternity. In other words, they were people who at the end of their lives had died genuinely repentant of their sins, but before they had atoned for them, and also before Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection could release them to go to Heaven. They took the view that many Old Testament figures such as Adam and Eve were awaiting Christ’s Passion and Death, so that they might be released from confinement and finally admitted into Heaven.
Strange as this concept may seem to some of my readers, this passage from St. Peter’s letter was once a popular subject in art, as shown below. It was often referred to by various titles, such as “Christ’s Descent into Limbo” or “The Harrowing of Hell”. Nowadays, the subject is rarely depicted artistically, or even talked about. I suspect that it leaves many people feeling a bit perplexed, or even uncomfortable, and therefore they choose to ignore it.
Yet as it happens, every time you pray the Apostles’ Creed, you are referencing this event as described by St. Peter in this letter. The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest formal prayers we have, variously dated to the earliest centuries of the Church. In Latin, the relevant portion of the text of the Apostles’ Creed reads: “…passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad ínferos;” the translation in English reads: “…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, He descended into Hell.”
If we turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 632-634 address what happened after Christ’s Death but before His Resurrection. The Church teaches that Jesus preached the Gospel to those who had died, in order “to free the just who had gone before Him.” The significance of this is that “the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.”
This then brings St. Peter’s account back around to ourselves, as we come under that category of those “in all times and all places”. Even though those of us reading these words are still alive at the moment, we may find ourselves eventually becoming permanently imprisoned by sin, if we do not do something about it, now. When we give in over and over again to the temptations of this world, to greed, anger, lust, and so on, or we ignore the needs of others for spiritual or material charity on our part, we simply build the walls thicker, and forge the chains around us heavier. In effect, we are creating our own, personalized prison cell in Hell, to which we are condemning ourselves.
We create these places of detention, very often, by thinking, “I’m not such a bad person,” or, “God will forgive me because He is infinitely merciful.” We tell ourselves this at our eternal peril. Christ speaks far more about the dangers of death and damnation in the Gospels than He does about the touchy-feely, happy-clappy, sunshine-day version of the Gospel which many have come to believe.
When God tells us that something is sinful, we do not get to interpret how He will judge us for engaging in that sin: He is God, and we most certainly are not. If you have convinced yourself that engaging in a sinful activity will be forgiven or overlooked by a loving, all-forgiving God, you need to go back and read the many passages in the Gospels where Jesus warns us that there will not only be judgment, but also permanent condemnation, of those who do not repent and change their way of living. He does not tell the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more – but if you do that’s okay, I don’t mind.”
While we are still able to receive Him, Christ can come to release us from our prisons, if we repent and turn to Him to ask for His help. He can break down these prefab infernal holding tanks we find ourselves in, if we let Him, but He will not force us to do so. We have to submit to the Will of God, which may mean doing things that we find difficult or even painful to attempt.
Lent is often likened to a journey. As we set out at the beginning of Lent, we begin the journey to Easter, which will take many weeks. In order to make that journey however, we cannot remain where we are, chained to the walls of our respective jails and going nowhere. If Easter morning finds us still imprisoned by our unrepentant sinfulness, having failed to accompany Christ on His journey to Jerusalem, it will be because we chose to remain where we are, preferring eternal confinement and misery separated from Him because we prefer to live as we want to live, rather than to follow Him as He wants us to do. Let us all pray this Lent that no one reading these pages makes that fatal choice, no matter how difficult it may be for any of us to break out of that prison in which we have confined ourselves.