I never grew up with a fire and brimstone image of hell. Sure, that’s the picture I had from cartoons, but my church never espoused it, and even at seven, I seemed to understand the difference. A lot of people blame Dante for the image of a fiery hell. And sure, with a name like Inferno, you’d think that hell is a hot fire. And there is the mention of a lake of fire in the Bible, so it would be unfair to say the fire and brimstone crowd is totally unfounded. Fire is mentioned often in Christianity. But rarely in a punitive way. The Holy Spirit is a fire. People’s tongues were aflame at Pentecost. Purgatory has a cleansing fire of purification. The light drives away darkness. Fire is alive and warm and powerful.
Hell is dead and cold and defeated.
There has been a winter blast through the South this week. Ice has covered the roads, leaving many stuck at home, some without power in temperatures dipping below 0. Universities and government offices have been closed. So if I’m going with a literary vision of hell, I’m sticking with Dante. Dante describes the inner-most circle of hell as ice, and I think Southerners stuck in a winter storm can understand why. Ice is harsh and dangerous. Ice is isolating, keeping communities from gathering and society from running. Cold is the absence of energy just as hell is the absence of God.
And my lips have been chapped for four days straight.
Churches have had to cancel their plans for Mardi Gras/ Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. While I’m not going to drive on the ice anytime soon, I may walk over to an Ash Wednesday service. Braving the cold and ice for Eucharist seems like a good deal and a fair start to Lenten penance.