The Death of Our Lord
He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.
For which cause God also hath exalted Him.–PHILIP, ii. 8,9.
And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.– MATT. xxvii. 50.
INTRODUCTION. This is the beginning of Holy Week. It was on this day that our Lord entered Jerusalem in triumph, saluted by the cheers and hosannas of the people who six days later were clamoring for His death. The week terminates with the sorrowful scenes of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, as described in today’s Gospel. After our Lord’s death His body was deposited in the tomb and His soul descended into Limbo. It is on these articles of the Creed that we shall speak today.
I. He died. 1. The death of our Lord is mentioned in the Creed that we may know He really died. 2. His soul was separated from his body, but the Divinity remained united to both His soul and body. 3. Christ’s death was voluntary.
II. He was buried, 1. The burial of our Lord is made a distinct part of the Creed in order that His death may be the more certain, and His resurrection the more authentic and glorious. 2. As the prophets had foretold, and as the Evangelists narrate, the Saviour’s burial was in keeping with the honor and respect due Him; His body suffered no corruption. 3. Although it was a Divine Person that suffered, died, and was buried for us, our Lord’s divine nature remained at all times impassible and immortal; it was His human nature that suffered.
III. He descended into hell. I. If was the soul of Christ, and not His body, that descended into hell; His descent was real, and not merely virtual. 2. Christ descended not into the hell of the damned, but into Limbo, the peaceful repose of the just, to liberate the souls that were detained captive there, and to proclaim His power and authority.
CONCLUSION. We must learn to die to sin as Christ died to this world, so that at our death we may escape the eternal prison and be conducted by Christ to everlasting rest.
Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part I
ARTICLE IV OF THE CREED
CHRIST REALLY DIED
Dead and buried. When explaining these words, the pastor will propose to the belief of the faithful that Jesus Christ, after His crucifixion, was really dead and buried. It is not without just reason that this is proposed as a separate and distinct object of belief; there were some who denied His death upon the cross. The apostles, therefore, were justly of opinion that to such an error should be opposed the doctrine of faith contained in this Article of the Creed, the truth of which is placed beyond the possibility of doubt by the concurring testimony of all the Evangelists, who record that Jesus ” yielded up the ghost.”(1) Moreover, as Christ was true and perfect man, He of course was capable of dying, and death takes place by a separation of the soul from the body. When, therefore, we say that Jesus died, we mean that His soul was disunited from His body, not that His divinity was so separated.
HIS DIVINITY UNITED TO HIS SOUL AND BODY, WHILE SEPARATED BY DEATH
On the contrary, we firmly believe and profess that when His soul was dissociated from His body, His divinity continued always united, both to His body in the sepulcher and to His soul in Limbo. It became the Son of God to die, “that through death, he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: and might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude.”(2)
HIS DEATH WAS VOLUNTARY
It was the peculiar privilege of the Redeemer to have died when He Himself decreed to die, and to have died not so much by external violence as by internal assent. Not only His death, but also its time and place, were ordained by Him. Thus Isaias wrote: ” He was offered because it was his own will.”(3) The Redeemer, before His passion, declared the same of Himself. “I lay down my life,” said He, ” that I may take it again. No man taketh it away from me: but I lay it down of myself, and I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it again.”(4) As to the time and place of His death, He said, when Herod insidiously sought His life: “Go, and tell that fox. Behold, I cast out devils, and do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I am consummated. Nevertheless I must walk today and tomorrow, and the day following, because it cannot be that a prophet perish, out of Jerusalem.”(5) He therefore offered Himself not involuntarily or by external co-action, but of His own free will. Going to meet His enemies He said, ” I am He “;(6) and all the punishments which injustice and cruelty inflicted on Him He endured voluntarily.
A STRONG CLAIM TO OUR GRATITUDE AND LOVE
When we meditate on the sufferings and torments of the Redeemer, nothing is better calculated to excite in our souls sentiments of lively gratitude and love than to reflect that He endured them voluntarily. Were any one to endure by compulsion every species of suffering for our sake, we should deem his claims to our gratitude very doubtful; but were he to endure death freely, and for our sake only, having had it in his power to avoid it, this indeed is a favor so overwhelming as to deprive even the most grateful heart, not only of the power of returning due thanks, but even of adequately feeling the extent of the obligation. We may hence form an idea of the transcendent and intense love of Jesus Christ towards us, and of His divine and boundless claims to our gratitude.
WHY THE WORD “BURIED” IS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
If, when we confess that He was buried, we make this, as it were, a distinct part of the Article, it is not because it presents any difficulty which is not implied in what we have said of His death; for believing, as we do, that Christ died, we can also easily believe that He was buried. The word “buried ” was added in the creed, first, that His death may be rendered more certain, for the strongest proof of a person’s death is the interment of his body; and, secondly, to render the miracle of His resurrection more authentic and illustrious. It is not, however, our belief that the body of Christ was alone interred. These words propose, as the principal object of our belief, that God was buried; as, according to the rule of Catholic faith, we also say with the strictest truth, that God was born of a virgin, that God died; for, as the divinity was never separated from His body which was laid in the sepulcher, we truly confess that God was buried.
THE BODY OF CHRIST INCORRUPT IN THE SEPULCHER
As to the place and manner of his burial, what the Evangelists record on these subjects will be found sufficient for all the purposes of the pastor’s instructions.(7) There are, however, two things which demand particular attention; the one, that the body of Christ was, in no degree, corrupted in the sepulcher, according to the prediction of the Prophet: ” Thou wilt not . . . give thy holy one to see corruption;(8) the other, and it regards the several parts of this Article, that burial, passion, and also death, apply to Jesus Christ not as God but as man. To suffer and die are incidental to human nature only, although they are also attributed to God, because predicated with propriety of that person who is at once perfect God and perfect man.
ARTICLE V OF THE CREED
He descended into hell. the third day he arose again from the dead.
A KNOWLEDGE OF THIS ARTICLE IS MOST IMPORTANT
He descended into hell. To know the glory of the sepulture of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which we have last treated, is highly important; but of still higher importance is it to the faithful to know the splendid triumphs which He obtained by having subdued the devil and despoiled the powers of hell. Of these triumphs, and also of His resurrection, we are now about to speak; and although the latter presents to us a subject which might with propriety be treated under a separate and distinct head, yet, following the example of the holy Fathers, we have deemed it judicious to embody it with His descent into hell.
WHAT ITS FIRST PART PROPOSES TO OUR BELIEF
In the first part of this Article, then, we profess that immediately after the death of Christ His soul descended into hell, and dwelt there while His body remained in the grave; and also that the same Person of Christ was at the same time in hell and in the sepulcher. Nor should this excite our surprise; for we have already frequently said, that although His soul was separated from His body, His divinity was never separated from His soul or body.
MEANING OF THE WORD “HELL” IN THIS ARTICLE
But as the pastor, by explaining the meaning of the word ” hell” in this place may throw considerable light on the exposition of this Article, it is to be observed that by the word ” hell” is not here meant the sepulcher, as some have not less impiously than ignorantly imagined; for in the preceding Article we learned that Christ was buried, and there was no reason why the Apostles, in delivering an article of faith, should repeat the same thing in other and more obscure terms. Hell, then, here signifies those secret abodes in which are detained the souls that have not been admitted to the regions of bliss, a sense In which the word is frequently used in Scripture. Thus the Apostle says, that, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth”;(9) and in the Acts of the Apostles Peter says, that Christ the Lord is again risen, ” having loosed the sorrows of hell.”(10)
ITS DIFFERENT MEANINGS
These abodes are not all of the same nature, for among them is that most loathsome and dark prison in which the souls of the damned are buried with the unclean spirits in eternal and inextinguishable fire. This dread abode is called Gehenna, the bottomless pit, and is hell strictly so called.
Among’ them is also the fire of Purgatory, in which the souls of just men are cleansed by a temporary punishment, in order to be admitted into their eternal country, into which nothing defiled entereth.(11) The truth of this doctrine, founded, as holy councils declare,(12) on Scripture, and confirmed by apostolical tradition, demands exposition, all the more diligent and frequent, because we live in times when men endure not sound doctrine.
Lastly, the third kind of abode is that into which the souls of the just, who died before Christ, were received, and where, without experiencing any sort of pain and supported by the blessed hope of redemption, they enjoyed peaceful repose. To liberate these souls, who, in the bosom of Abraham were expecting the Saviour, Christ the Lord descended into hell.
THE SOUL OF CHRIST REALLY DESCENDED INTO HELL
But we are not to imagine that His power and virtue only, but we are firmly to believe that His soul also, really and substantially, descended into hell, according to this conclusive testimony of David: “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.”(13) But although Christ descended into hell, His supreme power was still the same; nor was the splendor of His sanctity in any degree obscured. His descent served rather to prove that whatever has been already said of His sanctity was true; and that, as He had previously demonstrated by so many miracles, He was truly the Son of God.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HIS DESCENT AND THAT OF OTHERS
This we shall easily understand by comparing the descent of Christ, in its causes and circumstances, with that of the just. They descended as captives;(14) He as free and victorious among the dead, to subdue those demons by whom, in consequence of primeval guilt, they were held in captivity. They descended, some to endure the most acute torments, others, though exempt from actual pain, yet deprived of the vision of God, and of the glory for which they sighed, and consigned to the torture of suspense; Christ the ‘Lord descended, not to suffer, but to liberate from suffering the holy and the just who were held in painful captivity, and to impart to them the fruit of His passion. His supreme dignity and power, therefore, suffered no diminution by his descent into hell.
WHY HE DESCENDED INTO HELL
Having explained these things, the pastor will next proceed to teach that the Son of God descended into hell, that, clothed with the spoils of the arch-enemy, He might conduct into heaven those holy fathers, and the other just souls, whose liberation from prison He had already purchased. This He accomplished in an admirable and glorious manner, for His august presence at once shed a celestial luster upon the captives, filled them with inconceivable joy, and imparted to them that supreme happiness which consists in the vision of God, thus verifying His promise to the thief on the cross: ” Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”(15) This deliverance of the just was long before predicted by Osee in these words: ” O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite”;(16) and also by the prophet Zachary: “Thou also by the blood of thy testament hast sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit, wherein is no water “;(17) and lastly, the same is expressed by the Apostle in these words: “Despoiling the principalities and powers, he hath exposed them confidently in open show, triumphing over them in himself.” (18) However, to comprehend still more clearly the efficacy of this mystery we should frequently call to mind that not only those who were born after the coming of the Saviour, but also those who preceded that event from the days of Adam, or shall succeed it to the consummation of time, are included in the redemption purchased by the death of Christ. Before His death and resurrection, heaven was closed against every child of Adam; the souls of the just, on their departure from this life, were borne to the bosom of Abraham; or, as is still the case with those who require to be freed from the stains of sin, or die indebted to the divine justice, were purified in the fire of purgatory.
Another reason also why Christ descended into hell is, that there, as well as in heaven and on earth. He might proclaim His power and authority; and that ” every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.”(19) And here, who is not filled with admiration and astonishment when he contemplates the infinite love of God for man! Not satisfied with having undergone for our sake a most cruel death. He penetrates the inmost recesses of the earth to transport into bliss the souls whom He so dearly loved, and whose liberation from prison He had achieved at the price of His blood!