Inferno Canto 3: Anti-baptism?

By Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Canto 3 is liminal in character. It is about crossing over from one reality to another. It is a transitional space and time.

It strikes me that Canto 3 has great resonance with the season of Lent. Pastoral leaders in the early church created Lent for the purpose of navigating the liminal space between paganism and Christian faith within the context of the church. The forty days provided time and space for converts to cross over from lives lost in labyrinthine confusion into the promised land of salvation in the community of the redeemed. During Lent, candidates for baptism would come daily to the church in order to receive instruction in the rudiments of Christian belief and practice, to be exorcised, and to pray. These candidates (called “catechumens”) would always have a sponsor to guide them through the process of transformation and transition into membership of the Body of Christ.

The whole process would culminate during the Easter Vigil. Beginning on Easter eve, the catechumens, their sponsors, and the entire Christian community would gather to pray their way into Easter and to initiate the newcomers. The catechumens would cross over into membership in the church by passing through the waters of baptism. Often, the baptismal rite would invoke liminal imagery from the Old Testament: the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage; the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land by passing through the waters of the Jordan River; and the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry in the waters of the Jordan. Crossing the baptismal river led to a life of faith, joy, and hope in the fellowship of the church and in unity with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Canto 3 read against the Lenten practices of Christian initiation would appear to be a kind of anti-baptismal narrative. Nearly every element of the scene depicted in Canto 3 has an anti-type in the Lenten journey culminating in baptismal initiation into the church. Here, the condemned pass over from life into a living death by passing over the river. The ferryman is  a catechist of condemnation, conducting souls from one reality to another.  This new reality for the damned is one of woes, pain, loss, and divine judgment. The bottom line of the inscription over the portal to hell is, in fact, the metaphorical bottom line: “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”  The new reality means the death of hope.”

Dante’s theological insight takes one’s breath away: hell means living without any hope whatsoever. If we invert this spine chilling word, we see that life in fellowship with God is a life of hope. During this Lenten season, Dante can help us to see both the horrors of life lived without hope and also the life-giving power of life lived with hope.

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About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

2 responses to “Inferno Canto 3: Anti-baptism?

  • jeffvamos

    Dang. I’ve never thought of that. The river DOES bespeak all of that. Brilliant! There are so many layers to this poem.

    The Israelites crossing over the Red Sea had a GOAL. The promised land. And 40 years in the wilderness their purgatory. But the souls in hell are eager to cross over – toward NO goal. To a place where the suffering is indeed meaningless.

    Your anti-baptism insight also makes me think of the odd “double negative” in that weird voice emanating from the gate leading to hell:

    “No things were / before me not eternal…” (III.5, 6)

    Why does Dante use that double negative? You have to really think, eh? Would it then be, “before me, things WERE eternal”? Anyone care to comment here?

    Perhaps it’s a physical description – that is, in the physical space before entering, there ARE things that bespeak eternity – whereas this is “not” in hell? Or, could it be temporal? Prior to the existence of this place (gate), there were “things eternal”? Bends the mind.

    Italian scholars out there?

    Just to riff a bit more on this – could we then also play with this notion of “me”? Of “ego”? (“Per ME si va na la citta dolente…”?) Prior to the existence of this isolated “ego”, there was something eternal?

    And last – can’t resist the whole business of The Indifferent. The folks endlessly chasing a meaningless banner, because in life they refused to “stand” for anything. I remember T-shirt, before I knew anything of Dante, which read something like: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintained their neutrality.” The quote was actually used by JFK and erroneously attributed to Dante.

    Close – but not quite. Perhaps the WORST place to exist – neither heaven nor hell!

    Floor’s open!!

  • pkooistra

    “Hell–living without hope.” So much of what you have written, Gordon, I find compelling. What a privilege, for example, to be drawn into such details about the purposes and processes of Lent in the early church. But the thing that sticks with me most from your posting is the idea that “hell means living without any hope whatsoever.” My thinking in this way is likely unfair and inaccurate to a substantial degree (it is perhaps more emotional and rhetorical than empirical, analytical), but I can’t help but jump to considering the political realm in America, then, as at least a demi-hell. Our politics is so tortured, so tactical, with its emphasis on short-term electoral gains, and, therefore, so often destructive. In basic arithmetical terms, it is a politics less of addition or multiplication (except regarding budget numbers)than of subtraction and division. Two years ago: If only we could oust Bush and marginalize the yahoos who have supported him. Now: Off with the head of the tyrannical would-be King Obama, say the queens of heartlessness and the mad haters of the Tea Party movement. In our nation’s public square the form “Hope” takes is too often diminished, something wrung of its positivity, something mangled by anger, impatience, dismissiveness. We don’t so much hope FOR things as against them. We hope to bring an end to. We hope to get rid of: Get the IRS out of my life. Get the government out of healthcare. Could we somehow subject (a carefully chosen term) ourselves, before we next venture into the public square,to a sort of Lent? Slow ourselves down? Quiet ourselves? And, instead of having this angry mind(lessness)set that makes us prone to giving up ON larger institutions and other people, try to give up the various forms of negativity that render us so un(der)fit for engaging in a constructive politics? What would happen if, instead of setting aside cake or Survivor for forty days, we used this time to relinquish or at least moderate those habits of mental and social behavior that stall a more productive political engagement? The Easter for which we’re preparing models, ultimately, self-sacrifice that others might live. Many of us, of course, aren’t ready for that ultimate level of giving. How about, instead, sacrificing the most problematic parts of ourselves that we might live better with others? I suspect such Lenten practice could engender real hope–in each of us and for all of us together. -Pier

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