I was speaking to a friend on the phone who is expecting her first child. Her voice broke as she cried, “I’ve been waiting so long for this baby, but this is not the pregnancy I hoped for.” In the first trimester she had a close family member die, in the second trimester her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in the third trimester she was forced to self-isolate due to COVID-19.
I stumbled with the right words to comfort her. Then I remembered an ancient homily by Bishop Melito of Sardis (d. 180 A.D.) that I came across before Easter this year. It poignantly describes how on Black Saturday, Jesus descended to the dead.
In the homily, the bishop describes the place of the dead as not the place of eternal damnation, but as a place where no one can see God. And in this darkness, God enters in — not as supreme being, but as a man who has just died a vicious death. God enters slowly, and as one looking for a lost sheep, he searches for Adam.
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Adam is terrified when he sees Jesus, crying out, “My Lord be with you all!” Leader that he is, he instructs everyone to worship his Lord. Eve, too, is there, rising from the shadows. Her face marked with years of work and pain and joy.
Christ says, “Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld.” God did not make him for hell.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the old father sees his wayward son a long way off and runs to meet him. He gives him his best things, puts his ring on his finger and invites him to a feast.
God did not make him for hell.
Since the spread of COVID-19, we probably have all gone through a period of grieving as we isolate ourselves and feel the lack of what we don’t have. We find ourselves brooding over the state of things. We get caught up with the details. The monotony of the days. The state of the economy.
There are many kinds of hell. And I don’t mean just the place of the damned. I mean a feeling like we have been stripped of everything that used to give us security and joy.
We grew up in a garden; we were well protected. As a good student, I got scholarships in university and in graduate school. I learned languages. I traveled. I tried different kinds of food in expensive restaurants. I went out with friends to museums. I wondered at the world. I thrived.
As my life filled with responsibilities, with family and with children, I felt like my garden turned into a place of toil and sweat. The burden of life came upon me. Moments of escape to restful and still waters were tantalizing, sweet and short-lived.
More things were taken away from me. The garden seemed small and shrinking. I lost what I liked more and more, even loyal friends and good opinions.
The adult-self has walked out of the garden; the disillusioned adult-self sees that with age wisdom comes at the cost of suffering.
But God did not make you for hell.
So many of us are finding that we have a heavy burden to carry. We are all waiting to live again. What brings life into this dark place? What could allow us to venture forth, not back to the old garden, but to a better place?
“Arise, let us go hence,” Jesus said to Adam. “The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven.”
God does not enjoy seeing us suffer. Let’s have the courage to hope. Through this situation, our lives and our world can become a better place.