Ye choirs of new Jerusalem

Tuesday in Easter Week

Chorus novae jerusalem

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem,
     your sweetest notes employ,
the Paschal victory to hymn
     in strains of holy joy.

For Judah’s Lion bursts His chains,
     crushing the serpent’s head;
and cries aloud through death’s domains
     to wake the imprisoned dead.

From hell’s devouring jaws the prey
     alone our Leader bore;
his ransomed hosts pursue their way
     where Jesus goes before.

Triumphant in His glory now
     to Him all power is given;
to Him in one communion bow
     all saints in earth and heaven.

While we, His soldiers, praise our King,
     his mercy we implore,
within His palace bright to bring
     and keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
     all glory to the Son,
all glory, Holy Ghost, to Thee,
     while endless ages run.

This text, set so thrillingly by Charles V. Stanford, is an Easter hymn, traditionally used at I. Vespers of Sundays in Eastertide (that is, Saturday Evening Prayer from Low Sunday to Ascensiontide), written by St Fulbert around the year 1000. Like many of our hymns written up through the nineteenth century, it deals with several traditional images and points of doctrine that may not be familiar to many twenty-first-century readers / listeners / singers; the New English Hymnal, tellingly, includes a footnote to explain ‘Judah’s Lion’. So let us examine the text more fully.

Jerusalem, for people in Biblical times, was a symbol of home and of God’s presence. In Isaiah, then, the ‘holy mountain’ [of Zion, the mountain on which Jerusalem is built] is the place of reconciliation, where even the ‘eunuchs’ and ‘foreigners’ – those who technically could not be part of God’s covenant people – who nevertheless ‘join themselves to the Lord’ and ‘holds fast [His] covenant’ will be welcome, where even natural enemies (wolf and lamb, lion and ox) will be reconciled and live together in peace. In the Revelation to St John, the ‘New Jerusalem’ is the place of God’s full presence for those ‘who have kept [His] word and not denied [His] name [Rv 3], the dwelling of God even among mortals, the place where there is no pain or grief or death [Rv 21].

The lion is the symbol given to Judah and his descendants by his father, Jacob, before the latter’s death:

Judah is a lion’s whelp;
     from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion,
     like a lioness – who dares rouse him up?
     Gn 49.9

In the Revelation to St John [5.5], Christ is called ‘the Lion of Judah’ (Our Lord was of the tribe of Judah).

The serpent, of course, is the deceiver of Gn 2–3. It is this promise of God that the hymn refers to:

The Lord God said to the serpent…
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
     and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
     and you will strike his heel.’ 
     Gn 3.14a,15

Much of the rest of this hymn deals with the Harrowing of Hell. It is important to understand that the word ‘Hell’ in classical English (it is in fact an Old English word, with cognates in other Germanic languages) means ‘the underworld’ generally. In the King James Bible it translates, on the one hand, Hebrew Sheol and Greek Hades (both of which also mean simply ‘the underworld’), and on the other, Aramaic Gehanna / Hebrew Ge Hinnom (the Valley of [the sons of] Hinnom, one of the valleys below Jerusalem, known anciently as a place of child-sacrifice to the god Molech and thus symbolizing a place of fire).

The terms Hell / Sheol / Hades originally denote simply the place where all people go when they die, conceived of anciently as a place of shades and shadows, of unreality and insubstantiality, of forgetting and separation from life and liveliness. (This is a great contrast to Christian belief in a heavenly life that is more real, more clear, more lively than the familiar one, where spirit and matter are not divorced but finally and fully married – and which is accessible to some extent even here and now.) In more recent translations of the Bible, the concept of Sheol / Hades – frequently encountered in the poetical books – is usually rendered by ‘the grave’ or ‘the pit’.

In later times – post-exilic Judaism and the Greece of the philosophers – traditions began to develop concerning different fates for the righteous and unrighteous. Thus Hades was divided into various sections – Tartarus, the place of punishment; Elysium, the place of reward; Asphodel, an indifferent place – and there are parallels in Judaism, where the ‘Bosom of Abraham’ and ‘Gehenna’ are the parts of Sheol reserved for the good and the bad, respectively.* This is the background of Our Lord’s own parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Our Lord ‘went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison’ [1P 3.19], as reflected in the Apostles’ Creed, the Catechism [bcp 850], and Article III [bcp 868], as well as in the Hymnal :

You suffered death and harrowed hell...
     Veni redemptor gentium [55]

Weakness shall the strong confound;
by the hands, in grave clothes wound,
Adam’s chains shall be unbound. 
     Angelus emittitur [270]

Sing how he came forth from heaven...
passed within the gates of darkness,
thence his banished ones to save.
     Sing, ye faithful, sing with gladness [492]

The Harrowing has been understood literally-historically as well as in a more timeless fashion; as applying only to the Righteous Fathers or as applying to all the faithful or to all people; more as a rescue mission effected by Christ or as entailing actual suffering on the part of Our Lord. We have talked about the possibilities of an intermediate state, and the Prayer Book’s and Hymnal’s provision for such belief and for prayers for the departed, more than once.

Hell has sometimes been defined or explained as a place or state of separation from God, the separation being more or less self-imposed by one’s rejection of God or God’s ways. Modern Orthodox writers, on the other hand, have emphasized that there is no such thing as this eternal separation, but rather that all experience the same presence of God; those who have practiced righteousness in this life will be prepared to recognize God as ultimate beauty, while those who have not will perceive God’s full presence and love as terrible torment. Some do hold that this torment may be temporary or purgative, and/or that the possibility to repent and recognize God as goodness is always available.

These things we cannot know for certain. Our tradition, however, affirms that the life of heaven is accessible to us here and now. We also know that it is equally possible to experience a living hell in this world. The good news, as this hymn reminds us, is that Christ has descended to the dead and thus there is no place we can go where He has not already gone before us.

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever.
     Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week

*  By the time of Christ, some Jews (the Pharisees – ancestors of Rabbinical Judaism – but not some others) believed in the ultimate resurrection of the dead after a time spent in the appropriate section of Sheol. Gehenna in later Jewish tradition is a kind of purgatory, where one abides for a year as one’s deeds are brought to light and one undergoes punishment or purification before moving on to Olam Ha-Ba, ‘The world to come’, with the utterly wicked being destroyed or continuing in a state of remorse. But Judaism has by and large been much more concerned with the life of the present age than with speculation about the future.