And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (Mt 16:18)
Gates generally don’t prevail; at least they don’t in any kind of military offensive. Armies don’t move about in great mobile enclosures with gates that open and close gobbling up their enemies like a giant Pac Man. It is true that a strong and protected gate can add to a sturdy defense and hence may “prevail” against those trying to enter. However, it is difficult to see how “the gates of the netherworld” could think of prevailing against the Church of Christ in this way, since the Church is never eager to enter into hell.
If this be the case, then why does Jesus tell Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church? A gate’s primary duty is to maintain the coming-and-going in and out of the enclosure of which it is a part. Gates are generally kept closed to discourage entrance, yet opened as a sign of welcome. Gates are only as large as they need to be to let in only those things, the sizes of which are not too large for keeping out. Otherwise they are stationary devices that don’t make it their business to go about prevailing over other things.
However, considering our quote above from Sacred Scripture it is what stands behind the gate that most wants to prevail over the Church. The netherworld, the spiritual domain of the devil and his minions, ever desires to widen its enclosure with fallen souls. It expands through temptation and sin and broadens its reach and territory attempting to park its gate as close as it can to the Church. Yet, while evil may enter the Church through sinful priests, religious, and laity, the netherworld itself can never prevail against the Church because it cannot prevail against Jesus who has already vanquished its greatest weapon – eternal death.
On this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time we place on our bulletin cover a detail of a Mannerist painting by the great Venetian master Tintoretto entitled, The Descent into Hell (1568). Tintoretto “broke through the gates” of the High Renaissance freeing Italian art from its classical restraint allowing for a more active and dramatic representation of the actions of Jesus Christ.
Here we see Christ on Easter Saturday descending into Hades to free souls from an enduring death. Below the hovering Christ is the gate of the dark netherworld broken asunder so as to release all those who died since Adam. Each will receive divine judgement and hopefully the freedom of God. An angel below Jesus carries a chain he has taken off of one of the dead, perhaps even from Adam who had been desperately awaiting this day. Unseen in our painting fragment are many more people in shadowy form and one nude female of bright appearance who must certainly be Eve, now redeemed by Christ the new Adam (1 Cor 15:22).
Natural death still reigns today over man on earth as a healthy reminder of his mortality and need for God. Everlasting death in the netherworld is also still a likelihood for those who deliberately disregard God’s truth and his command of mercy. But the risen Jesus, the Easter Christ, is the great sign (Mt 16:4) that each and every human person may skirt the gates of hell if only he repents and believes in the Gospel (Mk 1:15) thence proceeding through the gates of heaven.
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services