The Last Four Things: Hell; Advent IV
For the final Sunday of Advent I’ve asked the Rev. Martin F. Hauser, Pastor of Grace & St. Paul’s Church to contemplate Hell. There’s something about the way in which a Lutheran approaches topics like Judgement and Hell that preachers of other faiths just don’t do. I think it has to do with the distinction between Law and Gospel; and how a Lutheran understands Law and Gospel in their places.
A CHRONOLOGY OF HELL
Or, more accurately, a chronology of my relationship with hell. I remember that in church it was a grown-up Bible word, like “begotten” and “circumcision.” Outside of church it was also a grown-up word – an exclamation which punctuated every assertion. And that’s about that.
But then I discovered art. Did you know that they have big books in the library, books on religion and art, books full of colored pictures of paintings from long ago? I leaned this when I was ten. Turns our there are lots of hells for the torment of different souls. The medieval doctors assure us that Jesus rules the hells, not the devil. Jesus looks down with kindly love upon the tortures of the damned. The naked damned. They had no clothes on. Not very interesting, as they were all gray and skinny. More interesting was Satan, especially on the ceiling of the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence. A ceiling that in later years I stared at open-mouthed for some time on many occasions. Satan was devouring three sinners simultaneously.
It was not until I came to New York in 1983 that I learned those three sinners were Judas, Brutus and Cassius. They betrayed their friend. They betrayed their friend. There is nothing worse. In that year mi ritrovai in una selv’ oscura and started the descent into hell with Dante and Virgil after Vespers on Maundy Thursday, I didn’t make it to heaven as fast as they. It took a few months to make my way into the vison of l’amor che mov’ il sol e l’altre stelle. The next fall, I discovered that an old friend, now professor of Romance languages at New York University, was teaching Dante, so I signed right up. Read the book, friends and neighbors. Get the Dorothy L. Sayers (yes, that’s right – quite a lady) translation. No edition has better notes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In those days there were no middle schools. We went to Junior High. We had gym class. This was hell. We were all taught a life-long love of fitness by being ordered to get naked, being shouted and whistled at, having hard rubber balls thrown at us, being humiliated if we dropped from exhaustion. I also discovered that the word “hell” is not to be pronounced. Ever. Under any circumstances. If the Latin textbook says that Pluto kidnapped Proserpina and carried her “ad inferos,” the proper translation is “to you-know-where” or “to the place down there.” And the words were to be pronounced with the hand over the mouth, grimacing as though one had farted. To use the word “hell” in its proper context was obscene. Who knew? It was becoming pretty clear that Southern Illinois was hell.
Having fled Southern Illinois as fast as Pluto’s chariot could take me, I arrived in civilization. I learned Greek with Mr. Morgan. I went down into Hades with Odysseus and Prof. Zeph Stewart, brother of Justice Potter Stewart. Still later Aeneas and I made our way hand in hand into Avernus under the guidance of Prof. Claussen, him that edited the Oxford text.
Somewhere along the way I began to sink into my own hell. The real one, I suppose. Near as I can tell. God started to intrude into my consciousness, This is not fun. This is not entertaining.
When God becomes really and obviously and inescapably both the dimensionless center and the more-than-infinite circumference of all that is and more, it makes it very hard to value yourself, your character, your accomplishments, your intellect, your goodness, your kindness your generosity – even your life for that matter. You see that God is all, you are nothing. God is more than all. You are less than nothing. Why do you even exist? Maybe, in fact, you should not. Maybe the thing to do is to put an end to the pain and the terror, the shame and the horror. It’s an experience aptly described by Tony Hendra of the National Lampoon in his ‘Deteriorata:”
You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not,
The universe is laughing behind your back.
Only it’s not funny.
The hand that reached down into hell to pull me up belonged to a dead Nazi and Lutheran theologian named Werner Elert, sometime Rector and Dean of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Erlangen. I read a little pamphlet of his which enunciated the Gospel – the forgiveness, love and healing that God freely, graciously and unconditionally bestows upon all who put their trust in Jesus Christ. Hell spat me out like the fish did Jonah.
A few years later I was working with Fr. Paul Hutchinson of blessed memory at Christ Church in the Near South Side ghetto of St. Louis. I was teaching a class on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The president of the Church Council disagreed with St. Paul. She believed that it was just plain wrong to say that Christ has set us free from the Law of God. Sure Jesus died for us and all that but…but…but, we still have to do this that and the other. We still can’t do this that or the other. We still have to live by God’s Law.
Fr. Paul Hutchinson was a real theologian. There are some. Here and there. He was a great exorcist. He prayed. After the Bible Class we were at the tavern as always. I asked Paul why was it, did he reckon, that people thought they could live by God’s Law instead of clinging to the Cross like a drowning man to a raft? He slammed his mug down on the table so hard it like to broke and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Because they’ve never hung over the fires of hell, that’s why!” Yes.
At Easter time we usually put out a picture of Jesus’ descent into hell. He is holding out a hand to all the faithful men and women of the Old Testament. He will take them with him to Paradise.
Fr. Paul Hutchinson used to say that God has forgiven everybody in hell, The reason they are still there is that they don’t believe it. Now I’m old. I will die pretty soon. This is OK. I love those old medieval paintings of hell. I love the old hymns that threaten fire and brimstone. It’s just picturesque mythology that describes a part of our experience as God’s people. See, I believe in Jesus’ death for sinners. So wherever or whatever hell may be, it’s not for me. I will live with Christ forever.
Martin asked me to include this hymn with his post and I think it’s quite appropriate not only given the theme and his request, but also that I’ve been putting up music all Advent. The request was for:
|Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit
Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit,
Posaunen wird man hören gehn
Danach wird man ablesen bald
O weh demselben, welcher hat
O Jesu, hilf zur selben Zeit
Derhalben mein Fürsprecher sei,
O Jesu Christ, du machst es lang
|The Day Is Surely Drawing Near
The day is surely drawing near
A trumpet loud shall then resound
A book is opened then to all,
Then woe to those who scorned the Lord
O Jesus, who my debt didst pay
Therefore my Intercessor be
O Jesus Christ, do not delay,
And here’s the Great O for the Day:
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Or, as Sixpence None the Richer puts it:
O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
O come, O come Thou Dayspring bright
Pour on our souls thy healing light
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom
And pierce the shadows of the tomb
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
O come Desire of Nations bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid every strife and quarrel cease
And fill the world with Heaven’s peace
Emmanuel shall come to thee
Shall come to thee
Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel