Thursday, April 16, 2009

St. Joseph at the Harrowing of Hell


Readers of this blog will know that I am fond of speculating about the saints. And among my favorites are those stellar members of the Holy Family, Saints Joseph and Mary.

There are various depictions of Jesus appearing to Mary after His resurrection, but a friend of mine recently wondered: what was it like for Joseph to see Jesus after the crucifixion, when they met at the Harrowing of Hell?

Saint Joseph is the patron of a happy death, and I trust that he had one. But if he died with hope and joy, he also died in incomplete knowledge. He had not seen Jesus' public ministry; the Holy Spirit had not yet been poured out at Pentecost. I suspect that on his deathbed, Joseph trusted in the Lord, while still deeply wondering about what lay ahead (as he had done so many times during his life).

And if this was his disposition in death, it was also probably his disposition after death. There in the Netherworld, in Limbo, in the Bosom of Abraham, knowledge would have been imperfect. Joseph must have known that much was lacking there and, dimly, he would have perceived that there was more to come. But what? He trusted and yet... he could only see so far.

Christ is often pictured triumphantly smashing the Gates of Death as He descends into the Netherworld. But I wonder if His entry was, at first, less glorious. I wonder if the faithful souls, awaiting their redemption, were at first shocked and crushed to see that even Jesus, the Lord of Life, had been defeated, exiled here to the land of the dead. If even Jesus had been defeated, there were not grounds for hope at all; all was lost, in a very fundamental way.

But then, maybe with a word, or a gesture, Jesus indicated that He was not defeated, but that He had conquered death and had come to set the captives free. And then, beginning as a ripple and quickly becoming a flood, the utter dejection of the souls in Limbo turned to shouts of exaltation.

Now I could be wrong, but it wouldn't surprise me if Joseph was the first to raise that glad cry. He had been waiting, and hoping, and he knew that something big was about to break... And now it had. "That's my boy!" he shouts in excitement, turning to those around him. "I knew it! I KNEW it!" Laughing through the tears that are pouring down his face, he cannot help but share the glad tidings: "It's my boy!" But then humility seizes him and he concedes, "Well, of course, He's not really my boy; His father is the Lord. But He's the Son of my beloved wife and..." And quickly his enthusiasm takes over again - "And it's my BOY!" By now the other souls all see that their redemption is indeed at hand and all have joined in the joyful noise. But punctuating the cries of glory you hear one voice echoing above all the others, echoing into the depths of eternity: "That's my BOY!"

Photo credit: The Harrowing of Hell, by an unknown Dutch painter, c. 1600, from the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.
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