Our faith tells us that Jesus’ soul and body were never separated from his Divine Person, but in the hours between Jesus’ death and resurrection, his soul and body were separated from one another. Noise and all its attendant ills no longer make any claim on Jesus’ body, but his soul is very active on our behalf.
In 1273, the year he died, St. Thomas Aquinas preached a series of fifty-nine Lenten sermons on The Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. He said the first lesson we should carry away from Christ’s descent “into Hell” is one of hope. He based his argument on Scripture, but he also appeals to our common sense. The book of Ecclesiaticus assures us , “he that feareth the Lord shall tremble at nothing…for He is his hope” (Ecclus 34:16).
On the other hand, St. Thomas reminds us that Jesus delivered only the righteous from hell. He urges us to reflect on our lives, and to conclude that if we strive to remain in the state of grace, we have no reason to doubt God’s mercy. Nevertheless, we should also consider the souls Christ left to their punishment, and not assume that God will overlook our sins if we fail to repent.
Christ continually calls us to follow Him, and His descent into hell is a particularly effective example. Christ’s visit to the netherworld to deliver the just “from their privation of glory,” invites us to pray for the souls in Purgatory. Scripture teaches “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they be loosed from sins” (2 Macc 12:46), and St. Thomas reminds us that only a very cruel person would fail to offer help to a friend in prison. If we are willing to pay a debt for a friend in this world, how much more eagerly – considering the far greater punishment a soul suffers in Purgatory – should we come to the aid of those who have died?
The title by which Jesus is most often addressed in the gospel is “teacher,” and the early Church said Christ came to save us by His example, going through every moment of our lives – from the first to the last – and teaching us how to face the many challenges of our human existence.
The Resurrection completes this education, enabling Our Savior to show us in His risen body what we may look forward to if we remain faithful to His commands, and what we will face if we ignore them.
Christ invites us to share His goodness, but the sheer immensity of that goodness may be so overwhelming that we are reluctant to approach Our Savior, simply because we feel so unworthy of His love. In this dilemma, we members of the Order of Malta ought to lead the way by pointing to Mary, whose life and example offer us counsel and hope.
Sin claims no part in the nature of the Son of God, so our faith (reasonably) teaches that the human Jesus was like us in all things but sin. This is not the case with the Virgin Mary. She was like us in all things, including our need to be delivered from sin, and our faith teaches that God’s gift of Baptism after our birth echoes the special gift God gave Mary before she was conceived.
The Psalmist says, “I will lie down in peace, and sleep comes at once.” These words should provide a consoling image of the mortal Jesus, during the hours between Good Friday and Easter. But they should also remind us of our vocation as members of the Order of Malta, called to strive for the world’s peace.
This peace, our theology tells us, is a state of tranquility between persons or within oneself. Its basis is the virtue of charity, in which all desire is united in a desire for God. Virtue, like sin, has social consequences, so personal peace has a social dimension because God commands us to love one another as we love ourselves. And this means fulfilling to some extent the will of our neighbor as if it were our own.
After the Annunciation, the gospel tells us Mary “arose and went with haste” to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. The dictionary defines “haste” as “celerity of motion,” or “swiftness,” so we cannot doubt that Mary made this journey speedily. But the dictionary also defines haste as “dispatch” or “urgency,” which takes haste out of the realm of mere speed and gives it a certain intention. Mary undoubtedly made the journey as quickly as she could, but she also made it with a certain determination and purpose.
In the “Purgatory” of Dante’s Divine Comedy, every soul is spurred toward heaven with an appropriate passage from Scripture. Those atoning for sins of laziness cry out the words from the gospel: “Mary ran with haste unto the mountain.” “Swift, swift,” they cry, “lest time be lost by little love.”
We commonly think of laziness as putting off things we ought to do, but this procrastination is only a symptom of laziness. Laziness is a vice opposed to the virtue of charity, a growing cold where we ought to be warm, and going slowly where we ought to make haste.
Mary is the model for our active life by showing us the necessity for haste – speed united with purpose – lest time be lost by little love.
But she is also the example of our life of silence and peace. In his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Pope St. John Paul wrote that at the birth of Christ “her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son.” Thereafter, she never failed “to contemplate the face of Christ.”
Mary is the one individual present at every moment in the life of Jesus and the early Church. As these Easter days lead to the solemnities of Our Savior’s Ascension and Pentecost, we may be certain Mary is present, inviting us to see ourselves, frightened at the enormity of what God asks of us, perhaps, but nonetheless confident that we have been blessed. “I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
-Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.
Principal Chaplain of the Western Association
May the Most Holy Virgin of Philermo lead us through these Easter Days in Safety and Peace