He Descended into Hell
I had one of those proud papa moments this morning.
My son, just a little over 5 years old, was playing Mass in the living room. This isn’t that unusual; his godparents had ordered him a toy Mass kit for his birthday this year and he loves to break it out. However, this morning during his homily (always cute when the little guy begins to preach), something caught my attention. I realized that his “preaching” was actually the recitation of the Apostles Creed.
Now, the fact that he knows the Creed (give or take a few words) is enough to make me proud. Hurray for the family rosary! What really caught my attention, however, was the section of the Apostles Creed when we profess “He descended into hell”.
I believe that sometimes, as Catholics, we can be guilty of saying the same creeds and prayers over and over and not pausing on occasion to listen to what we are actually saying. I would suspect that “He descended into hell” may just be one of those parts worth reflecting on for many of us.
The Apostles Creed
Written as early as the Second Century, referenced by name in the late Fourth Century by St. Ambrose and finally appearing in its final form by the Seventh Century, the Apostles Creed states:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.
So, what exactly does it mean that Christ descended into hell?
The Fourth Lateran Council stated that “immediately after the death of Christ His soul went down in triumph into the place where the souls of those justified under the Old Law were detained.” While called hell (hades in Greek, sheol in Hebrew), the Creed is actually referencing a place where souls were separated from the presence of God. This is not the hell of eternal damnation, nor is it Purgatory. Scripture calls this place the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22). Here, waiting for the arrival of the Messiah to open the gates of heaven to them were such Old Testament patriarchs as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David and even our Lord’s foster Father St. Joseph. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this the “last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission”.
Blessed John Paul II during his January 11, 1989 General Audience spoke about this article of the Creed:
We can therefore say that the truth expressed by the Apostles’ Creed in the words: “he descended into hell,” confirms the reality of Christ’s death. At the same time it proclaims the beginning of his glorification, and not only of Christ’s glorification, but of all those who, by means of his redemptive sacrifice, have been prepared for sharing in his glory in the happiness of God’s kingdom.
Our profession of faith through recitation of the Apostles Creed has served to catechize and safeguard Catholics since the earliest days of the Church. Something to contemplate the next time you begin praying the rosary.
And for me, what a blessing that I was reminded of this by my five year old son.