This year in Confirmation class Teresa Palumbo and her team of adult leaders are focusing on the Apostles’ Creed and what it means for us today. Through the years I’ve often recited the creed, and nearly every time I recite it I’m struck by one line in particular – he descended into hell (or sometimes – he descended to the dead). What does this mean? I’ve often wondered.
One of the greatest Christian writers of the last 150 years was a man by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Chesterton was a large and portly man whose writings were as large and bold as the man himself. G.K. Chesterton once wrote a story that highlighted this one line from the Apostles’ Creed:
A man who was entirely careless of spiritual things died and went to hell. And he was much missed on earth by his old friends. His business agent went down to the gates of hell to see if there was any chance of bringing him back. He pleaded and pleaded with the devil but to no avail. The iron bars of hell remained shut, and never yielded.
The man’s priest traveled to the gates of hell and pleaded with the devil too. The priest said: ‘He was not really that bad of a fellow, please open the gates and let him out!’ Again, however the gates of hell remain closed, stubbornly refusing to budge.
Finally, the man’s mother came and stood before the gates of hell. She did not beg for his release though. Quietly, and with a strange catch in her voice, she said to Satan, ‘Let me in.’ Immediately the great doors swung open upon their hinges – For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned.
I love that one line – For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned. This is the definition of God’s love for us in Jesus! Each Sunday we gather to hear the stories of Jesus. Jesus was one who wasn’t afraid to touch the leper, or to hold the penitent woman. Jesus was always ready to spend time with the Samaritan and eat with the tax collectors. Jesus was always telling stories about the God who comes down to us and joins us in our pain and problems; the God who walks with us through our trials and travails; the God who holds us through darkness and disease. In Jesus we find the God who goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned. Isn’t this the Good News – that God is with us forever and always?
And if this is the way God loves us by joining us in these dark moments, perhaps the challenge of the gospel is to reach out in love the way that God reaches out. Perhaps the challenge of the gospel is to walk with people where they are – not where we want them to be. Loving the way that God loves means NOT demanding that people change, but walking with them even when they refuse to change – standing by their side in their addictions and dysfunctions. This does NOT mean enabling bad behavior, but letting them know that you will love them always. Loving the way God loves means getting involved in the work of the poor, mission trips or Habitat for Humanity or the homeless meals or Road Home – it means rubbing shoulders with the poor and NOT just giving money. Loving the way God loves means showing up when people are in grief, and holding another who is mourning, and wiping the tears of those who are hurt. Loving the way God loves means getting involved physically and personally with those who are walking in darkness.
As we study the Apostle’s Creed with our Confirmation students this year perhaps take a moment to recite the creed yourself. Pause when you come to that one line – he descended to hell – and pray that you might imitate the saving love of God with someone this year. Walk with them and hold them and most of all love them where they are and NOT where you want them to be; for love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned.