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.