The picture on the top of this article is one of my favorite religious images. It’s an icon of the resurrection, specifically, of Jesus’ descent into “the place of the dead.” This is the event we remember every time we say the line in Apostles’ Creed, about Jesus “descended into hell.” After his death, Jesus went to the place where the righteous figures from the Old Testament were waiting for the Messiah to defeat sin and raise them to Heaven.
Notice in this icon that Jesus is clothed in the white robes of resurrection, and the robes are flowing upward, like he’s dramatically breaking through the ceiling of Hell to rescue the souls waiting there. The two people Jesus is holding onto are Adam and Eve, the people who started this whole mess in the first place.
When we reflect on Jesus’ passion and death we often focus on how our sins caused Jesus to suffer this way. There’s a lot of truth in this kind of reflection, the Catechism says “our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross” (CCC 598). However, I think we also sometimes forget that Jesus freely suffered and died because of how much he loves us. The Catechism goes on to say, “In suffering and death [Jesus’] humanity became the free and perfect instrument of his divine love which desires the salvation of men. Indeed, out of love for his Father and for men, whom the Father wants to save, Jesus freely accepted his Passion and death” (CCC 609).
Jesus didn’t become man and die on the cross in order to scold us and make us feel bad about our sins. He did all that to show us how much God loves us, how good God is. Jesus suffered through all the torture and humiliation because that’s how desperately he loved Adam and Eve…that’s how desperately he loves me. The cross is a symbol of God’s goodness!
Go back to the icon and notice the skeleton in chains there at the bottom. This figure represents sin and death. Suffering and death are not part of God’s plan for us, rather, they are things that God allows because of our free choice to reject God and reject life. Jesus came as a conquering king. He came to bring about the Kingdom of God and to destroy sin, suffering, and death. God didn’t create these terrible things but he took them upon himself. Everything that causes us to suffer, everything that kills us, Jesus freely let kill him. Then he defeated them.
This isn’t merely an historical event. God wants to enter into every one of our deaths, into everything that kills us, whether it’s illness, suffering, depression, loneliness, etc., and transform it. And he wants to do that right now, not just after we die and go to Heaven.
God became man, God suffered on a cross, so that we may experience healing, so that we may be restored, so that we may receive the Holy Spirit, so that we may become God. Jesus didn’t come to simply being us back to the Garden of Eden, he came to transform us, glorify us, and share his Divine Life with us.
And this transformation isn’t our work, it’s God’s work. We cannot heal ourselves or make ourselves holy, but God can. And all God asks for is our consent, our cooperation. We can stop carrying these burden ourselves. We can stop trying to be perfect. We can stop beating ourselves up when we struggle with a habitual sin. We just have to surrender our sins and weaknesses to God and let him transform us step by step. We don’t have to convince God to love us, forgive us, heal us, or transform us. We just have to let him.
As we celebrate Easter I encourage you to take a few moments and reflect on this infinite love that God has for you personally. Ask the Lord how he wants to heal you, how he wants to transform you next. Reflect on what’s keeping you from accepting that next step. Is it sin, fear, shame, or feeling unworthy of his love? Surrender all of that to the Lord and let him heal you.
I want to end by sharing a passage from the pope’s recent letter to young people. I encourage you to open your heart to our Holy Father’s words and let them settle deep there.
“The very first truth I would tell each of you is this: ‘God loves you’. It makes no difference whether you have already heard it or not. I want to remind you of it. God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved.
…For him, you have worth; you are not insignificant. You are important to him, for you are the work of his hands. That is why he is concerned about you and looks to you with affection…He does not keep track of your failings and he always helps you learn something even from your mistakes. Because he loves you. Try to keep still for a moment and let yourself feel his love. Try to silence all the noise within, and rest for a second in his loving embrace.
…The second great truth is that Christ, out of love, sacrificed himself completely in order to save you. His outstretched arms on the cross are the most telling sign that he is a friend who is willing to stop at nothing….The same Christ who, by his cross, saved us from our sins, today continues to save and redeem us by the power of his total self-surrender. Look to his cross, cling to him, let him save you, for ‘those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness’” (Christus Vivit 112-119).
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.