[O LORD] If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,”
Darkness is not dark to you [O LORD];
the night is as bright as the day.Psalm 139:7-11
These words are taken from Psalm 139. The Psalm is a song of wonder at God’s omnipotence and omnipresence, a hymn of trust in the God who never allows his Chosen People to fall from His strong right hand. The Psalmist imagines himself journeying to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. Which begs the question: And what happens to him on his journey?
Mother Church teaches us that it was Jesus Christ who made that journey to the ends of the universe for our sake. In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (4:9-10) we read that Christ “descended into the lower part of the earth,” and that the One “who descended is the one who also has ascended far above the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
Thus, the vision cast forth in Psalm 139 became reality. Into the impenetrable gloom of death Jesus entered as light – “the night (became) as bright as the day” and the darkness became as light.
Christ Holds Us Fast
As envisioned by the Psalmist, Christ’s “right hand [does] hold (us) fast.” Hence, wherever, and however we may fall in life, God’s regenerate children always are gently cupped in His hands. He is present even at the door of death: that inevitable time and place where no one can accompany you further, where you can bring nothing; even there He is waiting for you – that place in time when for you He will change darkness into light.
These words of Psalm 139 read (it seems to me) like a dialogue between the Risen Christ and all of us; and in the process of doing so provide for us a satisfactory explanation of what takes place for every Christian at Baptism. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is more than a bath, a mere purification. It is more than becoming part of a community. It is a literal new birth, a brand-new beginning in life. Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans (6:5) says that in Baptism we have been “united” (or “grafted” as the word can also be accurately translated) onto Christ by likeness to His death. In Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ – He takes us unto Himself, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but rather do so through Him, with Him and in Him. In Baptism we surrender ourselves, we place our lives in His strong right hand; thus, we can say confidently with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). By offering ourselves in this manner, we willingly die to ourselves. Which in turn, means that the frontier between death and life is no longer absolute. Therefore, on either side of death, we are with Christ. From the moment we come out of the waters of Baptism, death is no longer a real boundary for us as Believers.
Beloved, every time we renew our Baptismal Vows (or recite together the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds) we are acknowledging to each other that our lives belong wholly to Christ – they are not our own – “for (we) were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). And because this is true, we are never alone, even in death, but are always with the One who is from before time and forever. Through the waters of Baptism, in the company of Christ, we have already made that cosmic journey beyond the abyss of death. At His side and, indeed, drawn up in His arms of love, we are freed from fear. The LORD enfolds us and carries us wherever we may go.
Love that Conquers Death
We affirm in the Apostles’ Creed our belief that in Christ’s journey into the abyss: “He descended to the dead.” Since Adam’s fall in the Garden, the gates of death had been closed; no one could return from there. There was no worldly key for those great doors. But Christ is the key. His Cross opened wide the gate of death. They are locked no more. His Cross, His immeasurable love, is the force that flung them wide open. The love of the One who, though perfect God, became man in order to die – this love alone has the power to open those gates. His love for us is immeasurably stronger than death: “Darkness is not dark to you [O LORD]; the night is bright as the day.”
When Jesus entered the world of the dead, He bore the stigmata, the signs of His Passion, His wounds, His suffering: they are the love (the power) that conquers death. He met Adam there, the first to be made in His image, and all the saints of old – who had, in the night darkness, been “eagerly waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28). As we contemplate such a joyous reunion of affection, can we not hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah? “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2).
Through the Incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings. But only at that mysterious moment in the earliest moments of Easter long ago, when He accomplished the supreme act of love by descending into the darkness of death, did Jesus bring the journey of the Incarnation (which began with his conception in the womb of the ever-blessed virgin Mary) to its completion. By his Death he now tightly clasps the hand of Adam, of every person who has been, and will ever be, “eagerly waiting for Him” – and He will usher all of them “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Beloved, the human soul was created immortal – and because of this fact humanity in a unique way remains in the Triune God’s memory and love, even in our fallen nature. But our own intellect alone is insufficient to lift us up to the Almighty. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy our eternal yearning, except being in communion with God: I am put in mind here of the words of the great fifth-century Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine (354-430): “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” An eternity without this union with the Almighty would be a punishment: thus, the writer famously cries in Psalm 130 (v. 1): “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice.”
Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with the Lord GOD Almighty, to that place where our own prowess is unable to bring us. Only in the One who conquered death are we set free, and our eternal hope is to be found.
This is the joy of the Christian Faith: we are free. In the Resurrection of Jesus, love has been shown to be stronger than death. Love made Christ descend, and love is also the power by which He ascended.