harrowing-of-hell-2Year B Ordinary 3

Last week during the homily I mentioned how the high-school you went to is very important. Several of you after mass were very helpful in pointing out that not only am I from a public school but also from the county. 2 strikes. I’ll try to earn back your trust, and if you’ll exercise some Christian charity with me while we work through this difficult time together (by which I mean I will be in my office forging a diploma from SluHigh), that would be an act of mercy. I don’t even want to repeat, though, some of the jokes you all were telling me about Dubourg.

To phrase this in a way that hopefully will resonate with you all and make our Old Testament reading become more real, the Ninevites went to a different high-school than the Israelites. In fact, they were more or less irrelevant: a people who lived far away, outsiders to the covenant of Abraham, who didn’t worship the true God. But God doesn’t see them as irrelevant at all, and He sends Jonah to them specifically.

It takes three days to walk through Nineveh. The Scriptures are incredibly subtle and sophisticated, and that detail is important. It’s the exact amount of time Our Lord is in the grave after his crucifixion. Those three days are known as the Harrowing of Hell, because Our Lord descends to the depths and there he preaches the Gospel to all those who had died before his advent.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone.”

St. Ephraim says, “The voice of our Lord sounded into Hell, and He cried aloud and burst the graves one by one. Tremblings took hold on Death; Hell that never of old had been lighted up, into it there flashed splendors, from the [angels] who entered in and brought out the dead to meet Him.”

A harrow is a medieval piece of farming equipment that was used kind of like a plow to break up the soil. So the Harrowing of Hell is the breaking apart of the Devil’s kingdom. It was first called a harrowing by a medieval, English poet named Caedmon. Caedmon himself is fascinating. He was a 7th century shepherd who was taught by God how to compose poems during a dream. He’s a genius who probably didn’t know how to read.

Anyway, Caedmon has a poem called Christ and Satan which first uses the phrase “harrowing of hell.” In it, he says that “crashing thunder went before the judge, who bowed and burst the doors of hell. And bliss came unto men when they beheld their Savior’s face.”

During his three day walk, Jonah preaches the Gospel to a people who are lost. Just as Our Lord calls home to himself those who are captive, so too does Jonah invite these seemingly sinful and pagan people, people who mean very little to him personally, to repent and enter into God’s love. This is a love so strong that it destroys any evil that would dare to hold it back. It will travel to hell itself and make any sacrifice necessary.

This week, hundreds of thousands of people are making a similar journey as they’ve gathered for the annual March for Life. This is the great civil-rights cause of our time, and it brings to mind the people in our society who, like the Ninevites, are disregarded, who are considered irrelevant. Our current culture is, in many ways, barbaric. Instead of redeeming those who seem beyond the pale, it eliminates and ignores them. There are so many examples of ways in which life is de-valued: unborn children being the most important and pressing because they are innocent and vulnerable, but there are others, such as those would-be mothers who are so desperate that they see no possible future in which love could flourish, or those who are elderly, or those with some sort of perceived handicap, even those in prison who are being threatened with death. The world wants to weigh up factors such as intelligence or physical health, to make a calculation of how important so-and-so is, if they are worthy.

This is not how God wants it. You and I don’t get to judge who is important and who isn’t. I look into my own heart and see all the ways I am wanting, all the flaws I have. I know that there are people who are faster, stronger, smarter, handsomer, and more wealthy than I am. But God doesn’t judge our value on that basis. The temptation for us to do so is a lie from the devil.

God sees a fisherman named Simon and makes him the first Pope. He sees a people like the Ninevites who seem so unimportant and He has compassion on them. You and me, with all our flaws, all He sees are His beloved children.

It is so important that we stand up for those who seem unimportant. It takes courage, and it also takes compassion. We don’t fight for pro-life, or what I would even refer to as social justice causes, because it makes us right and everyone else wrong. We hang in there because these are precious human beings that God loves. And this is a hard pill to swallow, but God loves not only the victims but also the oppressors, and those oppressors deserve to hear the truth. They deserve the opportunity to repent.

I want to challenge you to make this cause personal. How do you treat those around you, personally? Do your moral values affect the way you vote? Is every person you meet important to you, regardless of how society might value or mis-value them? Do you pray for them?

Caedmon places on the lips of Christ these words as he gazes on the poor souls who had been forgotten about: “Long was I mindful of this multitude.” He knows you. He has thought about you every moment of every day since your conception, and he will travel to hell and back to bring you with him to heaven. How could we do any less for each other.

God, you are the Father of all life.


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