The Gates of Hell
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THE GATES OF HELL
The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2023
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus … I will go before you and level the mountains. I will break in pieces the doors of bronze. (from Isaiah 45:1-7)
Isaiah’s reference to doors of bronze reminds me of the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who lived from 1840-1917. Perhaps Rodin’s most recognizable work is called The Thinker, a statue of an unclad, anonymous man sitting on a rock, resting his chin on his right hand, and thinking: thinking, as Rodin himself described, “with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” About what, you may ask, is The Thinker thinking? Rodin originally created The Thinker to sit near the top of a much larger work that he came to call The Gates of Hell. In 1880, Rodin’s commission was to create a great doorway for a new museum in Paris. He chose as his theme Dante’s Inferno, and thus it is the suffering of the damned and their descent into hell that The Thinker looks down upon and ponders. The Paris museum never came to pass, which left Rodin free to work and rework The Gates of Hell until he died thirty-seven years later. Eventually six bronze casts were made from the original plaster model, the first of which is nearby at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.
Some time ago I was at the Rodin Museum and stood before The Gates of Hell. It is startling to behold. Two immense bronze doorways, under a central tympanum, inside a decorative frame create a chaotic scene of irresistible downward momentum. Nearly two-hundred sculpted figures, like a waterfall of humanity, are either teetering on the edge, or tumbling into the depths of hell. Everything is collapsing. Everyone is falling: down from the heights of human existence, down to a heap in the bottom of a basement with depths we neither know nor have conceived. The Gates of Hell present such downward force as to suggest no one can rise against it, and no one can escape the closed doors of bronze.
The Gates of Hell is a particularly apt sculpture for our time. Everyone is falling. Everything is collapsing. What do I mean? Of course, foremost on our minds is the raging war in the Holy Land. As we all know, two weeks ago Hamas terrorists from Gaza invaded Israeli communities, butchered over a thousand people, and took hundreds of others hostage. Israel quickly declared war, began bombing Gaza to rubble, and now plans ground offensive to vanquish Hamas. The whole thing has created a humanitarian crisis, especially for innocent Palestinians trapped in Gaza with nowhere to go. The world is in an uproar. Meanwhile, we see the war criminal, Vladimir Putin, laughing with delight in hopes that western nations will be distracted from his ongoing, savage invasion of Ukraine. In fact, this past week Putin attended a summit meeting in China with other tyrants, despots, and dictators who want to create a new world order with their own totalitarian regimes leading the way. So we sit like The Thinker, watching the collapse of the damned – potentially the whole damned world.
Forgive me. You haven’t come to church to hear bad news about the state of the world. We should set our minds not on political things, but on spiritual things. When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they were attempting to entangle him in the same, false dichotomy. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22) Jesus brilliantly sidestepped the question because it struck at the age-old, yet misguided desire to separate the affairs of earth from the business of heaven. You see, within the Judaism of Jesus’ day, certain groups adamantly believed that truly spiritual people should shun the material order. They should not dirty their hands with earthly goods, especially unclean Roman coins that had the emperor’s idolatrous image and claims stamped on them. God and money don’t mix. Mystery and matter cannot dwell together, they reasoned.
Nevertheless, the divide between spirit and substance was then, and remains today, and always shall be irrelevant. We who are dwellers in time and space have no choice but to deal with the rough stuff of the earth. We have no access whatsoever to the spiritual realm except through God’s created order – that which we can taste and see and touch. Jesus saves us not from the world, but in the world and through the world. So when the world starts melting away, spiritual and non-spiritual people alike do well to be alarmed and concerned about the gates of hell that seem to be closing behind us. But can we do anything beyond sitting like The Thinker, pondering the demise of humanity? Can anyone reverse what seems to be an irreversible downward plunge?
Hear again the words of the prophet Isaiah: Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus … I will go before you and level the mountains. I will break in pieces the doors of bronze. Isaiah spoke these words to the Jews at a time of utter devastation in their national life. The menacing, nearby nation of Babylon had invaded the kingdom of Judah. The attackers ransacked the capital city of Jerusalem, and carried the whole population off to languish in exile, behind the closed doors of Babylon. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Babylon had a hundred doors of bronze in the city wall. For the Jews, these were the gates of hell that held them captive for decades under the iron fist and watchful eye of their vanquishers. They were helpless, in the bottom cellar of a basement they could neither have known nor conceived. The Babylonians had humbled the Jews with such downward force that no one could rise against it, and no one could escape the closed doors of bronze. All they could do was sit and think like The Thinker about the collapse of the world.
Then, God sent the pagan King Cyrus of Persia to break in pieces the doors of bronze.. Isaiah pointed to Cyrus on the move and proclaimed to his fellow captive people that here was not merely a servant of God, here was not just a doer of good deeds. Rather, here was God’s anointed. The word “anointed” would have stunned the captive Jews. It had messianic overtones. But was it true? Let history be your guide. Cyrus did indeed come and break down the bronze gates of Babylon. He rescued the Jews, allowed them to go home, and actually funded the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. The return from exile became one of the great moments in the sacred story of God’s people, not unlike the Exodus from Egypt. For them, for us, and for the whole watching world it is a sign planted in history that God’s will is to raise up that which has been cast down.
King Cyrus of Persia and the return from exile is an apt story for our time. But you may wonder: was it a fluke, or a coincidence, or a lucky turn of a friendly card that we shouldn’t count on happening again? Or, was God really at work in that time and place, doing what God wills and works for in every time and place? Was God, through Cyrus, really raising up a people who had fallen?
Nearly six-hundred years after Cyrus a small band of Jews was trying to find language to describe another remarkable reversal of humanity’s downward plunge. They were trying to describe the resurrection of Jesus and their experience of his continued, living Spirit among them. He who was dead had come to life again, had walked among them, and was still known to them in the breaking of bread. How could they explain it? They searched the Scriptures. They read the Psalms and studied the prophets. They undoubtedly paused over the one whom Isaiah had called anointed – King Cyrus – who had broken Babylon’s doors of bronze and rescued their ancestors centuries ago. As they read they surely connected the dots between Cyrus and Jesus, also called anointed. They dared to believe that the same power of God that brought the Jews home from exile also brought again from the dead their Lord Jesus Christ. Cyrus foreshadowed Jesus. The return from exile foretold Easter. Easter was inviting them to believe that God, through Christ, had done nothing short of reversing the downward momentum of death.
Our challenge now is not to sit like The Thinker, pondering the downfall of humanity. It is instead to bet our lives on Easter. To be a Christian is to live in the light of Easter, wagering with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength that love is stronger than death, that good shall triumph over evil. It is to walk by faith, not fear. In other words, God’s calling to us in these troubled times is this: Don’t just sit there, do something. Walk by faith.
It’s in this context of walking by faith, not by fear, that I wish to talk for a moment about some parish family business. By now most of you should have received in the mail or read in the Weekly Epistle the brochure entitled “Making All Things New.” Note well, the brochure isn’t about the annual campaign that pays the utility bills and keeps the ministries going. The good news is, we’ll talk about the annual campaign in two weeks! Actually, “Making All Things New” isn’t a campaign at all, at least not yet. Right now we’re merely in a discernment phase, exploring the feasibility of raising significant funds for building restoration. It’s no secret that large segments of plaster in the church do not sing the praises of the God who raises up that which has fallen. Meanwhile, the exterior facades of the parish house and rectory are beginning to look like Herman Munster’s house at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Our buildings are sacramental. They are an outward and visible sign, or an expression of the grace and faith that is in us. They should proclaim to the world that Easter is true, and that God loves the rough stuff of the world he has made, and all the people who inhabit it. So the challenge before us in the coming year will be to walk by faith, not by fear, and open ourselves to the Spirit of God, whose will it is to make all things new.
What does it look like to walk by faith? At the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, once I got past The Gates of Hell, I was transfixed by another bronze sculpture of six larger than life figures walking in a tightly knit group with pained, agonized expressions on their faces. I wondered: who are these morose people marching together, and where are they headed? Were they members of Grace Church, after hearing about an annual and a capital campaign all in one sermon? No, they are The Burghers of Calais.
In the year 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, the city of Calais had been under a lengthy siege. Food and water inside the walls eventually gave out, and to avoid starvation the city leaders asked for terms of surrender. King Edward III of England declared that if six burghers – or, leading citizens – would present themselves to him, wearing nothing but sackcloth and nooses around their necks, he would spare the rest of the citizens. In response, six men volunteered to give their lives so others might live. They opened the city doors and walked through the gates of hell, presumably to their executions. This is the moment that Rodin captured in his work. As it turned out, the Queen of England interceded on behalf of the six Burghers, and persuaded Edward to spare their lives.
The Burghers of Calais is a particularly apt sculpture for our day – a wonderful counterbalance to The Gates of Hell. In a time of unimaginable distress, they were willing to walk by faith. They were willing to give all they had, even life itself, and behold: they received life back again, and won life for their fellow citizens.
I want to walk with such faith, and not by fear, trusting in God whose will it is to raise up that which is cast down, to make all things new, to open unto us the gates of everlasting life. For thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus … I will break in pieces the doors of bronze.