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He that descended is the same also that ascended Jar above all heavens, that he might fill all things.
IF religion were not to bear only upon the unshakeable bottom of divine authority, but we might propose to ourselves in idea what could be fittest to answer and employ those faculties of man’s mind that are capable of religious obligation, reason would contrive such a religion as should afford both sad and solemn objects to amuse and affect the pensive part of the soul, and also such glorious matter and bright representations as might feed its admiration, and entertain its more sprightly apprehensions: for the temper of all men in the world is either sad and composed, or joyful and serene; and even the same man will find that he is wholly acted, in the general tenor of his life, by the vicissitude and interchange of these dispositions.
Accordingly Christianity, in those great matters of fact upon which it is founded, happily complies with man’s mind by this variety of its subject. For we have both the sorrows and the glories of Christianity, the depressions and the triumphs, the mournings and the hosannahs: we have the affecting sad nesses of Christ’s fasting, his bloody agony, his crucifixion, and the bitter scene of his whole passion in its several parts and appendages: on the other side 2 we gaze at his miracles, admire his transfiguration, joy at his supernatural resurrection, and (that which is the great complement and consummation of all) his glorious ascension.
The first sort of these naturally suit with the composed, fixed, and monastic disposition of some minds, averse from all complacency and freedom; the second invite the joys of serener minds, happier constitutions, and brisker meditations.
Nay, such a divine chequer-work shall we find in the whole contexture of the story of our religion, that we have the light still with the advantage of the shade, and things exhibited with the recommending vicinity of their contraries; so that it is observed, that in the whole narrative of our Saviour’s life, no passage is related of him low or weak, but it is immediately seconded, and as it were corrected, by another high and miraculous.
No sooner was Christ humbled to a manger, but the contempt of the place was took off with the glory of the attendance, in the ministration of an gels. His submission to that mean and coarse ceremony of circumcision was ennobled with the public attestation of Simeon concerning him; his fasting and temptation attended with another service of angels; his baptism with a glorious recognition by a voice from heaven. When he seemed to show weakness in seeking fruit upon that fig-tree that had none, he manifested his power by cursing it to deadness with a word. When he seemed to be over powered at his attachments, he then exerted his mightiness, in causing his armed adversaries to fall backwards, and healing Malchus’s ear with a touch. When he underwent the lash and violent infamy of 3crucifixion and death, then did the universal frame of nature give testimony to his divinity; the temple rending, the sun darkening, and the earth quaking, the whole creation seemed to sympathize with his passion. And when afterwards he seemed to be in the very kingdom and dominions of death, by descending into the grave, he quickly confuted the dishonour of that, by an astonishing resurrection, and by an argument ex abundanti, proved the divinity of his person over and over, in an equally miraculous ascension.
Which great and crowning passage of all that went before it, however it is most true, and therefore most worthily to be assented to, yet still it affords scope for the nobler and higher actings of faith: for reason certainly would now very hardly be induced to believe that upon bare testimony and report, which even those who then saw it with their eyes, that is, with the greatest instruments of evidence, scarcely gave credit to.
For it is expressly remarked in Matt. xxviii. 17, that of those who stood and beheld his ascension, though some worshipped, yet others doubted.
It seems things were not so clear as to answer all the objections of their eyes, or at least of their in credulity. But he ascended in a cloud, as it is said; there was some darkness, something of mists and obscurity that did attend him. Yet a lively potent faith will scatter all such clouds, dispel such mists, conquer this and much greater difficulties: which faith, since it must rest itself upon a divine word, such a word we have here; and that a full, a pregnant, and a satisfying word, which, from the pen of a person infallibly inspired, assures us, that he who 4 descended is the same also that ascended far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.
In the words we have these four things considerable.
I. Christ’s humiliation intimated and implied in those words; he that descended.
II. His glorious advancement and exaltation; he ascended far above all heavens.
III. The qualification and state of his person in reference to both these conditions; he was the same. He that descended is the same also that ascended.
IV. The end of his exaltation and ascension; that he might fill all things.
Of all which in their order. And when I shall have traversed each of these distinctly, I hope I shall have reached both the full sense of the text and the business of the day.
I. And first of all for Christ’s humiliation and descension. As every motion is bounded with two periods and terms, the one relinquished, the other to be acquired by it; so in Christ’s descension we are to consider both the place from which it did commence, and the place to which it did proceed. The place from whence, we are told, was heaven.
But the difficulty is, how Christ could descend from thence: according to his divine nature he could not; for, as God, he filled the universe; and all motion supposes the mover to be sometimes out of the place to which he moves, and successively to acquire a presence to it; so that nothing that adequately fills a place, can move in that place, unless it moves circularly; but progressively, or in a direct line, it is impossible. Whither then should the divine nature move where it is not prevented by its own ubiquity? 5whither should it go where it is not already? And as for Christ’s human nature, that could not descend from heaven, forasmuch as it was not first in heaven, but received its first being and existence here upon earth.
This argumentation, we see, is clear and undeniable; how then shall we make out Christ’s descension?
The Socinians, who allow Christ nothing but an human nature, affirm, that he is said to descend from heaven only in respect of the divinity of his original and production; as it is elsewhere said, that every good and perfect gift descends from above, namely, because it is derived from a divine principle. But his descending being here in the text opposed to his ascending, clearly shews, that there is a further and more literal meaning imported in the word.
I answer therefore, that Christ descended according to his divine nature, not indeed by a proper and local motion, as the former arguments sufficiently demonstrate, but because it united itself to a nature here below; in respect of which union to an earthly nature, it might metaphorically be said to descend to the place where that nature did reside: and thus much for the way and manner how Christ did descend.
We are now to direct our next inquiry to the place whither he descended; and for this we are to reflect an eye upon the former verse of this chapter, which tells us, that it was into the lower parts of the earth; but what those lower parts of the earth are, here lies the doubt, and here must be the explication.
There are several opinions to be passed through 6 before we can come to the truth. I shall propose them all, that every one may be his own judge which of them carries in it the greatest probability.
1. Some understand it simply of the earth, as being the lowermost part of the world. But why then could not the apostle have said, that Christ descended εἰς τὰ κατώτερα τοῦ κόσμου, and not τῆς γῆς, to the lower parts of the world, not of the earth? but to call the earth the lower part of itself is an apparent violence to the naturalness of the expression, and indeed not more forced than ridiculous.
2. Some understand it of the grave, which is called the heart of the earth in Matt. xii. 40. The Son of men shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Now the heart or middle of the earth is the lowest part of it, forasmuch as every progression beyond that is an access nearer to heaven, which encloses and surrounds the whole earth, and the nearer we come to heaven, the higher we are said to go: but this exposition is more artificial than natural, more ingenious than solid, and only to be valued as we do those things that are far fetched.
3. Some understand it of hell itself, the place of the damned; and our creed tells us, that Christ descended into hell: but to this I answer, that it relates not at all to our present purpose, whether Christ descended into hell or no; but the thing to be proved is, that hell, or the place of the damned, is the lower parts of the earth; which we deny, as being contrary both to the judgment of the church and of reason; it being hard to conceive what capacity there can be within the earth for the reception, not only of the souls, but of the bodies of all the 7persons that for six thousand years shall have peopled the world, the number only of those who shall be saved (which we are told are very few) being excepted.
4. But 4thly, the quicksighted Romanists, (forsooth,) who can see further into the earth than other men, have by the help of this text spied in it a place called purgatory, or rather the pope’s kitchen, for certain it is that nothing so much feeds his table. Now here, they say, are those lower parts of the earth, whither Christ descended: but before they prove that Christ came down hither, I would have them prove that there is such a place.
They say they prove it from 1 Pet. iii. 19, where it is said, that Christ by his spirit went and preached to the spirits in prison; the words in the Greek are, ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασι πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν. But do these words imply that those spirits were in prison at that time that he preached to them? Not at all; but the entire sense of them is this: He preached to the spirits in prison; that is, Christ in the days of Noah, by his spirit, preached to and strove with those disobedient spirits, which spirits are now in prison, or in hold, for so ἐν φυλακῇ signifies; that is, they are held in chains of darkness to the judgment of the great day: as, suppose I should say, that Christ preached to many hundred souls in hell, does it follow hence, that they were in hell while he preached to them? No, but it must be took in a divided sense, that many hundreds, who are now in hell, were once preached to by Christ.
And thus having shewn the nullity of this argument, I think it is clear that Christ descended not into purgatory, for that which is not cannot be descended 8 into. But I wonder why men should be so solicitous in finding out a purgatory; for if they go not to heaven, they need not doubt but that there is room enough in hell, without providing themselves of a third place.
5. In the fifth and last place therefore, I conceive these words in the text to bear the same sense with, and perhaps to have reference to, those in Psalm cxxxix. 15, where David, speaking of his conception in his mother’s womb, says, that he was framed and fashioned in the lowest parts of the earth. In like manner, Christ’s descending into the lowest parts of the earth may very properly be taken for his incarnation and conception in the womb of the blessed virgin.
That this is so, yet with submission to better judgments, I judge upon these grounds.
1. Because the former expositions have been clearly shewn to be, some of them, unnatural and forced, and others impertinent: but those four being removed, there is no other besides this assignable.
2. It is usual for the apostles to transcribe and use the Hebrew phrases of the Old Testament: and since Paul here uses David’s very words, it is most probable that he used them in David’s sense.
3. I add, that these words of Christ’s descending and ascending are so put together in the text, that they seem to intend us a summary account of Christ’s whole transaction of that great work of man’s redemption from first to last; which being begun in his conception, and consummate in his ascension, by what better can his descending be explained, than by his conception, the first part and instance of this great work, as his ascension was the last? So that 9by this explication the apostle’s words are cast into this easy and proper sense, that the same Christ, and eternal Son of God, who first condescended and debased himself so far as to be incarnate and conceived in the flesh, was he who afterwards ascended into heaven, and was advanced to that pitch of sublime honour and dignity, far above the principalities and powers of men and angels.
And thus much for the first thing, Christ’s humiliation and descension, both as to the manner how, and the place whither he did descend.
II. I come now in the next place to consider his exaltation and ascension. For shall he so leave his glory, as never to re-assume it? Shall such a sun beam strike the earth, and not rebound?
As for the way and manner how he ascended, I affirm, that it was according to his human nature, properly and by local motion; but according to his divine, only by communication of properties, the action of one nature being ascribed to both, by virtue of their union in the same person.
As for the place to which he advanced, it is, says the apostle, far above all heavens. In the exposition of which words it is strange to consider the puerile fondness of some expositors, who will needs have the sense of them to be, that Christ ascended above the empyrean heaven, the highest of all the rest, and there sits enthroned in the convexity and outside of it, like a man sitting upon a globe: for, say they, otherwise how could Christ be said to have ascended above the heavens? But if they will stick to this term above, let them also stick to the other, far above, and then they must not place him just upon the empyrean heaven, but imagine him strangely 10 pendulous in those spatia extramundana, those empty spaces that are supposed to be beyond the world. How improper, and indeed romantic, these conceits are, you easily discern.
But the words of the text have something of figure, of hyperbole, and latitude in them; and signify not, according to their literal niceness, a going above the heavens by a local superiority, but an advance to the most eminent place of dignity and glory in the highest heaven.
Besides, the very common use of the word does not of necessity enforce the former interpretation; for we think we say properly enough, that a man is upon the top of an house or tower, if he be but in one of the uppermost parts of it, without his standing upon the weather-cock: but it is the usual fate of such over-scrupulous adherers to words and letters, to be narrow men and bad interpreters.
I have nothing else to add for explication of Christ’s ascension, but only to observe and adore God’s great and wise methods of exalting, exemplified to us by an instance in his dearest Son. He, we see, is depressed before advanced, crucified before enthroned, and led through the vale of tears to the region of eucharist and hallelujahs. He was punished with one crown before he was rewarded with an other, and disciplined by the hardships of shame and servitude to the glories of a kingdom.
And do we now think to have our whole course spun in one even thread? to live deliciously in one world, as well as gloriously in another? to tread softly, and to walk upon paths of roses to the mansions of eternal felicities?
No, it is the measure of our happiness, and ought 11to be so of our wish too, to be but like Christ. The preferments of heaven will be sure to meet us only in the state of an afflicted abject humility. Christ preached upon the mountain, but he lived and acted his sermons in the valley.
The way of salvation must needs be opposite to that of damnation. We must (as I may so speak) descend to heaven; for it was Adam’s aspiring that brought him down, and Lucifer’s fall was but the consequent of his ascension.
III. I come now to the third thing, which is the qualification and state of Christ’s person, in reference to both these conditions: he was the same; He that descended is the same also that ascended. Which to me seems a full argument to evince the unity of the two natures in the same person; since two several actions are ascribed to the same person, both of which, it is evident, could not be performed by the same nature.
As for Christ’s descending, I shew that it could not be by his human nature, for that received its first existence on earth, and therefore could not come down from heaven; but it was to be understood of his divine nature, though improperly, and only so, as it became united to a nature here below: but as for his ascending, it is clear that Christ did this by his human nature, and that properly and literally; and yet it is here affirmed, that it was the same Christ who both ascended and descended; a great proof of that mysterious economy of two natures in one hypostasis.
The school of Socinus, we have heard, affirms Christ to have descended from heaven, only in respect of his divine and heavenly origination: but 12 how, according to their opinion, can they make it out that it was the same Christ who ascended? for they affirm concerning the body which lie had before his death, and after his resurrection here upon earth, that he did not carry that with him into heaven, but that was left here behind, whether by annihilation, or some secret conveyance of it into the earth by the power of God, they tell us not, nor indeed know themselves; but in the room of it, they say, he had a spiritual, ethereal body, with which he ascended into heaven; a body without flesh and bones, a refined, sublimated, angelical body; which are words enough, I confess, but where the sense is, we may go seek. I wonder they do not further explain their subtile notion, and say, that it is a certain body with out corporeity.
But though they will not allow the union of two complete natures in the same person, yet they and all the world must grant, that two distinct sub stances, the soul and the body, go to compound and integrate the man: and I know, according to their usual appellation of him, they will allow him to be the man Christ Jesus.
Now I demand of them upon what principles of reason or philosophy they will prove that to be the same compound, when one entire half, that goes to the making of it, is wholly another thing. When we take white, and mingling it with red, make a third distinct colour; if we could now separate that white from the red, and join it to a blue, do we think that this conjunction would make the same kind of colour that the former mixture did? In like manner can I affirm, that the same soul, successively united to two several bodies of a kind wholly diverse, 13if not opposite, makes the very same compound? If the whole be nothing else but its parts united, essential parts totally changed, I am sure, cannot be the same whole.
Neither let them reply, that this argument savours too much of philosophy; for by saying so, they say only that it savours too much of reason.
I confess there are some passages that fell out after Christ’s resurrection, that seem to persuade us that the body he then appeared in was not of the same nature with our bodies nowadays, nor with that which he himself had before his death; for we read, that he vanished out of some of the disciples’ sight, and that he came into them, the doors being shut.
Which considerations, I suppose, drove Origen to assert, that Christ’s soul had such a command over his body, and his body such a ductility to comply with those commands, that the soul could contract or expand it into what compass, or transfigure it into what shape it pleased; so as to command it through a chink, or crevice, or represent it sometimes under one form, sometimes under another.
But to this I answer, that however Christ’s body, as every body else, is capable of continuing the same, notwithstanding the alteration of its qualities and outward form; yet, that a body of such a dimension should be contracted to such a thinness, as to pass through a chink or crevice, cannot be effected without a penetration of the parts, and a mutual sinking into one another: which those who under stand the nature of body know to be a contradiction, and consequently impossible.
As for those scriptures which seem to give colour 14 to the opinion that Christ, after his resurrection, had such an aerial fantastic body, before I answer them, I shall premise that great instance and affirmation that Christ gave of the reality of his body, to his disciples, being frighted at his presence, and supposing they had seen a spirit or apparition, Luke xxiv. 38, 39. Why, says he, do such thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. What could be more plain and positive for the clearing of this particular? Certain it is, therefore, that he had the very same body, be the explication of other places that seem to imply the contrary never so difficult.
The first is in Luke xxiv. 31. He vanished out of their sight. To which I answer, that it is not at all absurd, to affirm, that Christ, by his divine power, might cast a mist before their eyes; or suspend the actings of their visive faculty in reference to himself, while he conveyed himself in the mean time away; or possibly he might depart with so quick a motion, that it was almost instantaneous, and so in discernible: for either the exceeding quickness or slowness of motion makes the successive progress of it not observable to the eye, as is manifest from an hundred daily experiments.
For the second place in John xx. 19, where it is said, that he came amongst his disciples, the doors being shut: this is capable of an explication that is obvious, and removes all difficulty. For it is not to be understood of the doors being shut in the very act of his entrance, but just antecedently to it; that is, Christ coming to the place found the doors shut; 15yet notwithstanding, by his immediate power, he caused them to fly open, as the angel did the prison doors at the release of Peter, Acts xii. and then he entered. Thus we read, that the lame walk, the blind see; not indeed while they continued lame and blind, but the lame and blind were first cured of those infirmities, and so made to walk and see.
So Christ did not enter, the doors continuing shut, but the doors that he found fast shut, he by a strange power opened, and so came amongst his disciples, which was enough to affright and amaze them.
But to reduce this to a familiar instance: Sup pose a stranger or suspicious person should come into an house, and the master of the house should ask his servant, whether the doors were shut or open when he came in? Surely his meaning is not, did he pass through the door while it was shut? But his sense is, did he find the door shut, and so broke it open, or did he find the door standing open, and so entered? This exposition is natural, and so clears the doubt, that the difficulty itself vanishes, and is but an apparition: and so much for the third thing.
IV. I proceed now to the fourth and last thing; which is, the end of Christ’s ascension, that he might fill all things.
This also is capable of various interpretation, for this term, all things, may refer,
1. Either to the scripture, that he might fill, or rather fulfil, (for the Greek πληρόω signifies both,) all those prophecies and predictions recorded of him in the books of the prophets.
2. Or secondly, it may refer to the church, that 16 he might fill all things belonging to that with his gifts and graces; for it is subjoined, that he gave some, apostles; some, prophets; some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers: for the perfecting of the saints, and for the edifying of the body of Christ. Both these expositions, I confess, are probable. But,
3. In the third place, it may relate to all things in the world, within the whole compass of heaven and earth; and since the words so taken afford us an eminent proof, both of Christ’s essential deity, as also of the power with which he was endued as mediator; we shall not let so great a prize slip out of our hands, but prefer and follow this as the most genuine interpretation.
Now Christ may be said thus to fill all things in a double respect.
1. In respect of the omnipresence of his nature and universal diffusion of his godhead. The schools, in stating the manner how one thing is in another, whereas they make bodies present by circumscription, finite spirits definitive, that is, by being so here, as at the same time not to be there; not improperly, I think, make God to be in all things by repletion; that is, he is so in them, that they are rather in him; spreading such an immense fulness over all things, as in a manner swallows and folds them up within himself.
Such a fulness has Christ as God, by which he fills, or rather overflows the universe, et ad omnia praesentialiter se habet. Could there be a more full and apposite proof of this than that place, John iii. 13. No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man, 17which is in heaven. He came down from heaven, and at that time was talking with Nicodemus upon earth; and yet even then he was still in heaven. How, but by the omnipresence of his divine nature, that scorned the poor limitations of place, diffused an immense presence every where, and could be in heaven without ascending thither?
But what I say of Christ, as to his divine nature, should I assert the same of his human, it would be both an error in divinity, and a prodigious paradox in philosophy.
Yet the Romanist will have Christ’s whole body to be in ten thousand places together, and at once; namely, wheresoever their host is celebrated, and in every particle of that host; which certainly is the greatest absurdity and most portentous piece of non sense that ever was owned in the face of the rational world.
And the Lutherans, who, by a dough-baked reformation, striking off from the Romish errors, have rather changed than corrected this grand absurdity, they assert a consubstantiation, and the consequent of it, the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature.
But certainly they have some unanswerable arguments that force their assent to such uncouth propositions. What they are, we shall hear. They argue thus:
Christ, in respect of his human nature, sits at God’s right hand; but God’s right hand is every where, and consequently Christ’s human nature must be so too.
If I might answer a foolish argument according to its folly, I might demand of them, if God’s right hand be every where, where then will they place his left? But do not they know that Christ’s sitting at God’s 18 right hand is not taken in a metaphysical sense, for his coexistence with it; but is only a phrase, importing God’s advancing him to high dignity and honour, as princes use to place their favourites at their right hand?
But they proceed. If Christ’s human nature be united to the whole divine nature, then, wheresoever his divine nature is present, there must be also his human. But supposing that his human nature is not every where, and that his divine is, then in those places where the human nature is not, the divine is there without it; and so consequently in those places it is not united to it: for things intimately united must be present together in the same places.
But what pitiful, thin sophistry is this! whatever at the first sight it may appear: for they distinguish not a spiritual union from that which is corporeal, and between things having quantity. If indeed Christ’s human nature were united to his divine by way of adequate commensuration one to the other, it would then follow, that if one was where the other is not, the union so far would cease; but the union between these two natures is only by intimate, indissolvable relation one to the other; so that wheresoever the divine nature of Christ is present, though his human is not there present too, yet it still holds the same relation to it, as to a thing joined with it in one and the same subsistence. And so much in answer to a sophistical argument brought to defend a misshapen, monstrous assertion.
We see here the first way how Christ fills all things in the world; namely, by the essential omnipresence of his divine nature. But yet this is not the filling all things directly intended in the text; for that was 19to be consequent to his ascension; he ascended that he might fill all things; it accrued to him upon and after his ascension, not before; but his omnipresential filling all things being an inseparable property of his divine nature, always agreed to him, and was not then at length to be conferred on him.
2. In the second place therefore, Christ may be said to fill all things, in respect of the universal rule and government of all things in heaven and earth committed to him as mediator upon his ascension. This is the only filling all things that the school of Socinus will allow him; forasmuch as they make him to be God only by office, not by nature; and that his full deity bears date from his ascension; at which time he took possession of the government of the world.
But in this, I must confess, they are so much the less injurious to Christ, since they allow the Father himself to fill all things no otherwise: they acknowledge him indeed to have such an extent of power as to reach all places, persons, and things; but his omnipresence they deny, and confine his being to a circumscribed residence within the highest heaven; as we may see in Crellius’s book de Attributis Dei, chap. 1. So little ought we to wonder at their denying the deity of the Son, when they have even torn the fairest perfections out of the godhead of the Father.
But to look back upon Christ, now enjoying the end of his ascension, even the sovereignty of all things. This is he, that is now King of kings, and Lord of lords; who wields the sceptre of heaven and earth, and wears the imperial crown of the universe. Heaven 20 is his throne, and the thrones of kings his footstool.
He now shines in the head of that glorious army of martyrs, and, wearing the trophies of conquered sin and death, possesses the kingdom of the world by the two unquestionable titles of conquest and in heritance. The angels, those immediate retainers to the Almighty, and ministers of Providence, are his attendants; they hear his will, and execute his commands with a quick and a winged alacrity.
All the elements, the whole train and retinue of nature, are subservient to his pleasure, and instruments of his purposes. The stars fight in their courses under his banner, and subordinate their powers to the dictates of his will. The heavens rule all below them by their influences, but them selves are governed by his. He can command nature out of its course, and reverse the great ordinances of the creation.
The government, the stress and burden of all things, lies upon his hands. The blind heathen have been told of an Atlas that shoulders up the heavens; but we know that he who supports the heavens is not under them, but above them.
And to give you yet a greater instance of his sovereignty, he extends his dominion even to man’s will, that great seat of freedom, that, with a kind of autocracy and supremacy within itself, commands its own actions, laughs at all compulsion, scorns restraint, and defies the bondage of human laws or external obligations.
Yet this, even this absolute principle, bends to the overpowering insinuations of Christ’s spirit; nay, 21with a certain event, and yet with a reserve to its own inviolate liberty, when he calls, it cannot but be willing. My earthly prince may command my estate, my body, and the services of my hand, but it is Christ only that can command my will: this is his peculiar and prerogative.
It remains now that we transcribe this article of our creed into our lives, express his sovereignty in our subjection, and, by being the most obedient of servants, declare him to be the greatest of masters: even the blessed and only Potentate, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto.
To whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.22
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