In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). This is for us a very consoling image of Jesus watching over us as members of His flock. We can also think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who brings back those who have strayed. Both views of Jesus the Good Shepherd bring us great consolation at His loving actions for all of us.
As we embrace Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we need to see that He is not just the Good Shepherd for those who came after He was born, but that He came to be the Good Shepherd of all, regardless of when they were born. Before Jesus died for our sins, it was not possible for anyone to enter into heaven due to original sin. Original sin is the first sin of our parents Adam and Eve that estranged us from God's friendship. With this estrangement, it was not possible for anyone to enter into heaven until this relationship was righted.
This is what Christ did by His death. Sin created such a great divide between us and God that no person alone could bridge it. God, who is full of mercy and love, decides in His Son that He will bridge the divide we cannot. With Christ's death, the chasm created by original sin is bridged and the way opened for those who truly believe in Him to enter into heaven.
While this is truly good news for us who have been alive since Christ's saving death, what about those who have died before Christ's death? Are they to suffer because they were alive before Christ?
Of course to make them suffer for this reason would not be just at all. So Christ descended into hell. Hell at this time was the abode of all who had died, those who were just and those who lived lives for which they would normally suffer in hell.
An ancient Holy Saturday homily sees Christ entering into hell in triumph, carrying His cross with Him. Adam, seeing Christ enter, immediately strikes his breast and calls out that the Lord has come.
Once He entered hell, Christ would have preached the Gospel to those who were there. By this action, He would fulfill the promise of the Gospel to bring salvation to people of all times and all places. After gathering those who listened and agreed to follow Him, He led them out of hell, beginning with Adam and Eve, to the paradise prepared for them from the foundation of the world in heaven.
With this important part of God's saving plan accomplished, Christ rose from the dead on the third day to assure His followers that death had not swallowed Him, but that He had conquered it. The same saving message Christ preached in hell to those who had died also brings salvation to us today. As Lent continues on, may we cling more closely to this saving message.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton.