The Descent Into Hell


Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854

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A friend’s Facebook status reminded me that today is Easter’s infamous vigil. It’s the Christian equvilant of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva”, which is the mourning period for the dead. Instead of a person, however, Christians today mourn/anticipatory celebrate Jesus’s death and descent into hell.

I am not versed in how this day goes in any other religion except my natal one, Catholicism. My friend is of the Eastern persuasion, and her recollections on Easter differ from my own as they spin Holy Week in a more positive way than the gore, guilt and unworthiness focus of my Catholic youth.

But as I remember the lesson from my Catholic schoolgirl days, Jesus died on Good Friday and descended into hell. There, he rallied the souls of the faithful departed and led them to heaven. It’s a zombie version of The Rapture. The gates of heaven were locked against humanity after some snit God had in the Old Testament. Christianity, as a whole, makes a lot less sense when the Old Testament is examined too closely, and the nonsensical idea that God is anything other than capricious and scary as … um … hell, can be found all over the bible’s earliest books.

I bring this up because of a conversation I overheard Dee having with a friend who stayed over the other night.

Her little friend is Catholic and Dee herself was baptized in the faith back when I still entertained ideas of leaving her belief system up to the tutelage of others. I didn’t catch the opener but as I walked by her bedroom, I heard an audible gasp and then,

“But you have to believe in Jesus!”

I cracked the door a bit and observed Dee’s friend staring at her as though she was possessed and spewing green bile.

“I don’t believe in Jesus,” Dee assured her with a calm and determination that made me proud and a bit awestruck.

Later as we were driving the friend home, I caught a whispered conversation as the little girl tried to convince Dee of the consequences of not believing.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, there is this place you go to after you die that’s not nice,” she said, quite earnest and clearly concerned for Dee’s afterlife.

“I don’t believe in this,” Dee said, again with an assurance that seemed a bit too large for her tiny 8 year old self. “I believe that when we die, we go to the underworld and our souls are weighed with the feather of truth.” (she did not add the part about the hippodoodel that eats the wicked who wasted their lives and then try to lie about it – and it’s interesting to note the Egyptian that has crept into her Greek mythology).

“How does she square this with her idea that her grandfather and Daddy Will are in heaven?” Rob asked me as I related the story to him later.

“I have no clue,” I said, “but it’s not any worse spin than most Christians employ trying to reconcile the inconsistencies in their beliefs.”

There is a tiny residual bit of Catholic in me that worries about what I have wrought, but mostly, I was really proud of her. She wasn’t the least bit worried about what her friend would think of her beliefs. They were her beliefs and she held fast.

Rob and I are doing a far more awesome job than I realized with this raising a kid thing.

More Reasons I Would Burn in Hell If There Was One


Jesus resurrected and Mary Magdalene

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Driving Miss Dee home from Brownie’s this evening, she cheerily brought me up to speed on the “culture” badge they’d earned via the meeting’s activities.

“We made an egg holder shaped like a bunny and Browny Owl had some culture bread, which we ate while she talked to us about culture and then we wrote about our own culture in our books, which we got to make up.”

“You ate culture?”

“It was good too,” she chirped.

“Was this about Easter?” I asked, needing to nail down the cultural aspect of the evening.

“Yep,” she replied.

“Well, Mick and her old friend/new boyfriend are coming this Saturday for Easter,” I told her, having only just found out during a conversation I had with Rob before picking her up. She’d called to update him on her new job, confirm for dinner and remind him that Dare is deathly allergic to nuts. He’d recently had an incident at the restaurant where the older girls work because he was too polite to mention it to Mick’s co-workers.

“Easter is Saturday?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s Sunday. Remember? You wanted to call it Easter Eve instead of Holy Saturday.”

“But I thought it was Friday,” she said.

“Friday is Good Friday.”

“According to the Catholics,” she said, using a tone that sounded a lot like her dad’s when he talks about organized religion. A cross between “how quaintly foolish and we must put this evil down – hand me the hammer and sharpen the stakes”.

At this very moment, we drove by the Separate school in Ardrossan. Separate schools are Catholic but operate under the banner of the public school system and are funded by the province.

“Look, Mom,” she waves her finger at the building. “There it is! What is it?”

We’ve had this conversation and it’s never ended satisfactorily. There is something on the building that catches her eye every time and she describes it in such vague terms that I have never been able to tell her what it was.

But this time, I think I know what it is.

“The cross?” I ask.

“Yes! What does it mean?”

Oh, how to explain this unique symbol of death. Eureka, I decide to use Easter.

“Well, you know Easter? And Jesus?”

Affirmative to both.

“Jesus was nailed to the cross on Good Friday. Died. And then on Easter, he was brought back to life,” no sugar-coating is the best way to split this knot.

And I hear the chirping of crickets from the back seat as Dee tries to make sense of this news.

How to relate it?

“You remember Osirus?” I ask.

Of course she does. She’s an excellent pagan.

“Remember how he was chopped up and Isis pieced him back together? He came back to life as the Lord of the Dead?”

More silence.

“That’s like Jesus,” I am feeling confident about having related a story I can’t even remember being told, that’s how etched it is in my psyche, to my daughter who knows next to nothing about anything that isn’t polytheistic in nature.

“Except, for the chopped up part,” she points out.

“Right, there’s that difference.”

“And Jesus is not the God of the Underworld. He is in heaven.”

Give me points for her knowing his geographical location at least.

“Yes, God raised him up to heaven,” I agreed.

“What’s God’s name?”

I flip quickly back and forth between Yahweh and Jehovah in my mind before offering them both.

“Why is he called that?” her tone clearly indicates that she is not impressed with his moniker.

“He called himself that.”

“And is he the god of?”

“Hmm, well, he’s just God.”

“And what did he do?”

Because Gods “do” things and have “jobs”.

“He created the world, they say, and humans.”

“But Zeus did that,” she said.

“Well, that’s what Catholics believe about him,” I said.

“Catholics,” she said, in that tone. “I’m baptized like a Catholic, right? So I am Catholic.”

Knowing, as I do, that it’s not really that simple – though many of my fellow cradlers aren’t that well-versed – I try to explain the “choice” thing.

“It’s not like being half-German or Irish, sweets,” I tell her. “Being Catholic is a choice.”

“Is Brookie a Catholic?”

Brookie is the neighbor girl who goes to the Christian school in town. I sigh inwardly. I really don’t want to branch off into the schism and confuse her with the splinter groups.

“She’s a Christian, which has many groups and Catholics are one of those groups.”

I can hear her eyes glazing over before she mercifully takes the conversation along another track.

“N2 was baptized like me. Is he a Catholic?”

“Yes, but he and DNOS and Uncle don’t practice it much anymore.”

“Because they are too busy with hockey?” she asks.

“Yes, hockey is time-consuming.”

“Like being Catholic?”

I am not sure that counts as a light-bulb moment, but I take it and steer the conversation away from religion, and it occurs to me that I bit off far more than I realized when I decided to teach her about religion rather than simply handing off to the church via Catholic school and catechism as my parents did.

Ash Wednesday


Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian o...

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I love the voodoo side of Christianity – Catholic ritual especially. Like getting ashes smudged unto one’s forehead to mark the beginning of Lent. I was in high school before I realized that the priest was supposed to be marking us with a little cross. The priests at our parish were old, curmudgeonly and lazy as lizards in the sun, so for most of my childhood, Ash Wednesday meant wearing a big fat thumb print of one misogynist or the other.*

We made a game of not washing our faces and letting the ashes wear off. That whole day in school was marked with the constant flake off of burnt palm leaves from the Easter before as we endeavored wear our religion like a Brownie badge.

Of course, in my nearly all Catholic town, it was those without ashes who stood out. The rest of us were “in the club”.

It wasn’t until I was off in Des Moines and teaching that I gave up the start of Lent, as I eventually gave up Lent itself. Finding a mass to attend became inconvenient when I was anchored to the teaching day. And Des Moines was a Protestant dominated place with evangelicals and even more loony to the right of far-right’rs. I quickly tired of their prejudice and worse, their willful ignorance of any faith but their own.

“Do Catholics really drink blood.”

Seriously, someone asked me that. Someone grown up and with a college degree.

But mostly, I came to realize that it was the ritual, outward trappings and the psuedo-polytheism in the form of saints that really was what Catholicism was about for me. The silly trappings and not the beliefs or the foundation they were built on was my “religion”.

But even now, I miss the spiritualism. The mantra of prayer and response. The pageantry of Christmas and even Easter though I always found the latter to be a bit sick and perverse as it feeds an unhealthy self-loathing that often manifests out and at others. I have never found shame, guilt and fear a good basis for a relationship and yet that is the one we were instructed to build with the Almighty.

But the ashes were kind of awesome because regardless of the twisted nature of Lent, they were a rather good reminder to live in the now.

“Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

 

*Not an exaggeration. Neither man liked females in the slightest and took no pains to hide their contempt from us. Mothers, nuns or little girls. We were all barely tolerated.