Harrowing of Hell, Westminster style

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Given that Satan isn't considered a viable tool for theological indoctrination anymore (how times change), I'm all for religious music scaring the shit out of people now and then. Let's peel away the devil-horn and Beavis and Butthead connotations of the word "awesome" and get back to brass tacks — it means fear of the mighty and terrible. That is, when faced with the presence of God, it's not just joy you're feeling. It's dread.

Such were my thoughts (go figure) this week at the Westminster Choir concert at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. These thoughts didn't occur to me during the whole program. Much of it was wonderful and modern music from Finland, Serbia, and the United States. What struck me deep was the music of Louis Martin, a kyrie that required pipe organ. An organ blast is unique, because you can feel it. From where I was sitting, I could read on the wall a passage from The Book of Common Prayer. As I let that organ blast wash over me, I read:


I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead ...

Quaint, sure, but powerful stuff. Actually, I didn't read all of this until after Martin's piece. In the meantime, my eyes got stuck on the "crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell" part. I'd forgotten what theology calls The Harrowing of Hell in which Christ gathers up the patriarchs: Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, et al. — the men of God who couldn't have known Jesus or take into their hearts His gift of redemption. The only God they knew was the pissed off one.

I'd forgotten about that, but Christ's descent seemed apropos given the violence of the organ blasts and the power of Westminster's choir. His journey was the result of being out of his body, but going to Hell seems the most bodily thing one can do — that is, Hell is the epicenter of the material world and the antonym of Heaven.

Hell might be passe, but at least we can guess the music played there. Hint: In the painting by Fra Angelica, Christ evidently kicked down the door to Hell to free the Patriarchs awaiting their ascent to Heaven. You think that was done with harps and flutes? Think again. Think pipe organ and the Westminster Choir.

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