Tuesday night as I was turning off the lights and preparing to sleep, I stood next to our front door for a moment and then saw something move. Immediately in front of our door was a red fox, holding still as if enjoying the small amount of warmth leaking from our house. I looked through the glass on the upper half of the door and stared straight down at her. I called quietly to my wife who came and watched as well. The fox didn’t look well. My wife pointed out the poor state of her fur. She then sat and scratched vigorously, as if sore from fleas. We could see a clump of fur come off. She rolled on our doormat, scratching herself some more on places that must be hard to reach, leaving another clump of fur on the mat. I wished I could open the door and invite her in, but knew that wouldn’t be wise, if only for the fleas she would bring but also for the fear it would cause her if she did come in.
I thought of all the experts I’ve heard and the signs I’ve seen warning against feeding of wild animals, but wondered if the right thing to do would be to put some meat out on the porch. But something as simple as giving meat to my grandchildren’s dog causes her to throw up. She loves human food, but any meat other than dog food and small amounts of her favorite treat, bacon bits, seems to make her throw up. She has no problem with many strange foods like cucumbers and crackers, but meat is a problem. Would food prepared for humans be a problem for a fox? Even if it were the right thing to do, I wasn’t sure we had anything handy that would be suitable.
I also wondered if it would be a disservice to the neighborhood to encourage a
wild animal to hang out here for food, but then the neighborhood might
benefit from a predator that dines on the creatures that are the real
problems for many people here, mice. (Our many cute local rabbits might be on the undesirable
list for many as well, as they wipe out gardens and some of the
prettiest plants.) So maybe we really need a few foxes in the
Unsure about what to do, I did nothing but watch soberly. She later paced about, then walked into the snow and ate some for moisture, then dug a bit, searching for something, and moved on. It was cold, though warmer than normal. She was ill and hungry. Should I have done something? If you have a wise answer, I’d appreciate it. She may be back.
That evening left me feeling somewhat melancholy and pensive. The fox on my door struck me as a symbol of those suffering, often alone, while there I am, in comfort, so close, able to see the suffering, and yet various barriers, real or imagined, keep me away and unable to help, or just too afraid to act.
The fox on my door came on a day already filled with thoughts about the those with mental illness, those who are prisoners, and the needs of animals. It began with something that I don’t usually do: reading through a physical copy of the Liahona (formerly the Ensign). it was the latest issue, Feb. 2021, with articles on kindness and compassion, on the great value of each soul, on dealing with mental illness (Courtney Oakden’s inspiring, “What Mental Illness Taught Me about Who I Am”), and on ministering to prisoners (“A Message of Hope for Those Who Are Incarcerated“). The words “Prison Ministry” were on the cover, with an image of the hands of the Savior reaching out to help, beneath the words, “The Worth of Each Soul is Great.” What an inspiring start to my day.
Then I checked for critical emails and saw for the second time a touching email from a scholar who is helping me with a review of a paper submitted to Interpreter: A Latter-day Saint Journal of Faith and Scholarship where I am a co-editor. The reviewer shared a beautiful passage from a great Catholic theologian, scholar, and friend of the Latter-day Saints, Stephen H. Webb. I’ll share that passage below. In the email, this scholar also shared how was still pained, almost daily, over the tragic death of Stephen. I remember reading that he had passed away, but knew nothing about the details. I searched online and found that he had suffered with severe depression and ultimately committed suicide. I read a beautiful recollection from another scholar, Samuel D. Rocha, about Stephen’s life, “The Excess of Stephen H. Webb” at FirstThings.com. I also read about Stephen at Wikipedia. I learned that he had put much energy into prison ministry and advocating for better care of animals. He was a man of compassion who loved the Savior and loved those we often neglect. Prison ministry. Mental illness. Care for animals. Compassion for others. My morning study made me suspect that there’s something special to learn from Stephen Webb.
The passage that the scholar shared with me from Stephen Webb was written in response to reading a book on the Gospel of Luke by BYU professor S. Kent Brown. Stephen’s response, now published on the BYU “New Testament Commentary” site, is “Luke and Mormonism.”
After reading Stephen’s short article again I called my wife over and read some of his words about his discovery of the LDS view on the redemption of the dead. I was surprised as I read it that my voice cracked repeatedly with emotion I didn’t realize was there. I was so touched by what he wrote, expressing with subtle beauty the majestic love of the Savior for those in spirit prison and everywhere. He begins by discussing what some theologians have proposed as they struggle with theories of what Christ did during the three days that he was dead. Here is the critical passage, one that builds on Stephen’s experience with prison ministry as he explores some great conundrums on theology that suddenly become resolved with the beautiful solution taught by Joseph Smith:
The second [issue to discuss] is Jesus’ descent into hell and Brown’s placement of it at
the center of Jesus’ ministry. Hans Urs von Balthasar is the first
theologian to make that descent central to his own theology as well as
to Jesus’ earthly ministry. In his book Mysterium Paschale, von
Balthasar puts the emphasis of Holy Saturday on the suffering of Christ.
For von Balthasar, Christ suffers a physical death on the cross and a
spiritual death in hell. By depicting Holy Saturday as the furthest
reach of Christ’s suffering on behalf of sinners, von Balthasar makes it
the climax of the cross. The cross thus casts its shadow over Jesus’
death, so that even while his body is in repose his soul suffers
Critics of von Balthasar often point out that in traditional
interpretations of this event, Christ descends to the forecourt of hell,
the so-called “limbo of the fathers,” where he saves the righteous of
the Old Testament, rather than to hell itself. In my own criticisms of
von Balthasar, I have argued that 1 Peter 3:19 clarifies the descent by
telling us that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison. My experience
with prison ministry has led me to see the descent in a decidedly more
positive light than von Balthasar, indeed, to see it in the light of the
resurrection, rather than the darkness of the cross.
Preaching to the prisoners in hell was the culmination of Jesus’
ministry, I have argued, not the prolongation of his crucifixion. Jesus,
after all, was condemned as a criminal and died between two criminals.
It is even likely that he was imprisoned, although the Bible says
nothing about this. Where else would he have been between the arrest on
the evening of Holy Thursday and the trials that began on the morning of
Good Friday? Luke, anyway, seems to indicate a gap between his mocking
and the Sanhedrin trial the next morning (Luke 22:65-66). At some point
that night, and maybe again after he was sentenced to death, he might
have been put in a holding cell. Such cells were often little more than
holes in the ground, dark and silent. He would have prayed to his
father, but nobody but a drunken guard would have been there to hear
him. Perhaps this is where he was truly silenced, and perhaps that is
why the Bible passes over this episode in silence. If Jesus took on the
sins of the world and suffered the ultimate judgment of guilt and
defeat, then I am convinced that he found camaraderie and understanding
among the prisoners in hell. His descent was the first step toward his
resurrection and our rehabilitation.
In any case, after his death he visited the ultimate prison of hell
itself. Having accepted God’s judgment on all of humankind, I have
argued that Jesus would have felt right at home in hell, and the
prisoners would have been glad to welcome him. The sharing of the good
news is a joyful event, especially in a place where its message is most
Prof. Brown helps me to see that my interpretation of the descent
needs to be taken another step. Preaching is central to Jesus’ mission,
and authorizing others to preach is how Jesus established his church.
Imagine my joy in discovering, after I worked on von Balthasar’s
theology of Christ’s descent into hell, the Mormon understanding of
spirit prisons and the idea that Jesus indeed preached in hell, but he
did more than that. He organized the righteous to preach in his absence.
This is an astounding claim that has no precedence, as far as I know,
in traditional theology, and yet it makes absolute theological and
exegetical sense. To me, it means that even in hell the church is active
in carrying out God’s plan. The Catholic Church believes that salvation
comes through the Church, and thus it makes sense that Jesus would not
have left the spirits in prison without access to the church. The Mormon
explication of the descent thus gives me a new delight in the passage
from Matt. 16:18, where Jesus says he will build his church and not even
the gates of hell will prevail against it.
The gates of hell seek to shut out all humanity from the redeeming love of the Savior, but those gates will not prevail. We mortals are so often powerless when those we love struggle. But there is One with power to love and bless those who have died, including those who died in darkness, in despair, in ignorance, or in sin. There is One who can open every door on the coldest of nights and bring us in, if we will let Him. And if we love the Savior, we should, like Stephen, rejoice at the most amazing good news, that the dead are not forgotten, the prisoner are not ignored, for the Savior has organized a glorious work to reach out to all and give every man and woman a chance to hear His voice and know of His redeeming love, if we will.
As I read the closing words from Stephen, I sensed that he was a man who knew and loved our Savior. But while his words now reached out to me and lifted me, and while in his ministry he reached out to many and lifted them, even in the despair of imprisonment, Stephen, in his hour of greatest pain, may have been like a fox at our door, ill, suffering in the cold, and we didn’t know what he needed or how to help. I didn’t know him, but I imagine that all those who knew and loved him like my friend wish they could have been there at just the right moment and could have known somehow what to do, perhaps to offer nourishment or open a door and let him in for some relief, hoping to heal or perhaps just to delay. How much lasting grief there is when a loved one is lost to suicide. But how much hope there is through the endless love and mercy of Jesus Christ!