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. But, though he pleaded for the gates to be opened, the iron bars never yielded. His priest went also and argued: “He was not really a bad guy, let him have another chance!” Many other friends of his went also and pleaded with Satan saying: “Let him out, please!” The gates remained stubbornly shut against all their voices. Finally his mother came, she did not beg for his release. 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.
In this column I have considered how we should react when some of our loved ones cease externally to practice as Christians. I suggested that because of the power given us by the incarnation (“Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven”), our love and forgiveness binds our loved ones to the Body of Christ and forgives them, even if externally they have wholly or partially severed their relationship to church. Among other things, I stated no one can go to hell if they are loved by someone within the Body of Christ, providing they do not actively reject that love. I received a lot of reaction, emotional and reflective, positive and negative.
These critiques, as they are written, are wholly correct. I have only admiration both for the instinct behind them and for their actual phrasing. I do not for one second dispute that it is only Christ, the Holy Spirit and personal repentance that can save. What I do dispute is the parameters within which these realities are often understood.
Let me explain.
Only Christ saves. But where is the reality of Christ? Was the incarnation only a 33-year experiment, a one-shot incursion by God into human history? No! The marvel of the mystery is that God took on human flesh and has never since ceased to have human flesh. In St. Paul’s words, “We are the body of Christ.” We don’t replace Christ’s historical body, we are not like his body, nor are we his mystical body, we are his body; flesh, blood, tangible, in history, and to the extent that we live in grace, the on-going incarnation, God in flesh in history.
There is a marvelous story told about a four-year-old child who awoke one night frightened. In the darkness he imagined all kinds of spooks and monsters in his room. In fear he got up and ran to his parents’ bedroom. His father calmed him and, taking him back to his own room, put on a light and reassured him with the words: “You needn’t be afraid. God is here in the room with you!” The child replied: “I know God is here, but I want someone here who has some skin!”
God knows we need him in more than the abstract. We need to have skin! That is why he chose to become incarnate in it. But he didn’t shed his earthly skin after 33 years. Once enfleshed, he has remained in skin. We are his body now. When we forgive, Christ is forgiving; when we bind, Christ is binding; when we console, Christ is consoling. When we suffer anguish over a loved one, the lamb of God is bleeding.
When people accept our love, they are accepting Christ’s love. When their hearts are warmed and moved because we love them, they are being moved and repentance is taking place through Christ and the Holy Spirit. That is the mystery of the incarnation! It is true! Nobody can go to hell if they are loved by someone within the Body of Christ, providing they do not actively reject that love.
Does this all sound incredible? I hope so because then maybe we will begin to see the tip of the iceberg: the huge mysterious, powerful, earthly and incredible mystery of the incarnation. One lady wrote to me saying: “I would love to believe you, but it just seems too good to be true!”
What a marvelous description of the incarnation!