Nearly 3,000 innocent people were massacred on September 11, 2001. Here in Manhattan I witnessed the murder of 2,753 people inside the Twin Towers along with injuries to thousands of others in the surrounding area. I have visited the Pentagon where 189 people were slaughtered that same day. Since this year marked the 20th anniversary of these terrorist attacks I decided it was time to travel to the tiny town of Shanksville, Pa., population 237. I wanted to offer prayers at the site where 40 souls lost their lives for taking back United Flight 93 from the four hijackers who were planning to use that plane to kill even more people in Washington, D.C.
I chose route I-78 for the five-hour drive from New York City to the national memorial located on a field in Pennsylvania. As I was passing a double-long semi-truck near interchange 67, the sign for local route 412 was partially blocked. What I was able to read indicated that this was the exit for either Bethlehem or Hell. For an instant this struck me as odd since I had never heard of a city named for eternal damnation. Seconds later when I cleared the tractor-trailer obscuring my view, I was able to see the entire name which was, Hellertown, not Hell.
Nevertheless, this mental juxtaposition of a choice between Bethlehem or Hell reminded me of an Advent mission I preached some years ago at a parish on Staten Island. During the week I was there, the saintly pastor asked if I would visit each of the grades in his grammar school before everyone recessed for the holidays. When I agreed, he suddenly became quite serious and warned me to watch out for the first-graders. Naturally I inquired how a group of six-year-old children could pose a threat. He replied, “They have learned the Apostles’ Creed by heart and will be eager to recite it for you.” My confused look and shoulder shrug encouraged him to explain further. “Their parents have forbidden them from saying bad words,” he said. “So when they get to the phrase, ‘he descended into hell,’ they will scream the word ‘hell’ as loud as they can and break into giggling fits because it is the only time they are allowed to utter a curse word.”
I smiled, nodded appreciatively and proceeded to make my rounds in the school. When I came to the first-graders I suggested that since we were so close to the birthday of baby Jesus, rather than reciting a prayer together we should sing a Christmas song instead. My mistake was asking them which carol was their favorite. In unison they replied, The First Noel. I agreed with a smirk, assuming I had tricked them out of their spoof on the Creed. Then I heard their opening verse: At the top of their lungs they screeched, The First NO HELL,” and immediately broke into gales of laughter. Scoreboard: First-graders 1, Father Bob zero.
What is the theological link between December 25 and Hades? Christ’s birth occurred for one reason only: to save us from final condemnation. When we comprehend that this is the true meaning of Christmas, we can rejoice that God sent his son to die for us as our loving redeemer. The first-graders got it right. Noel, which means the nativity of Jesus, is God’s gift of “no hell” for the faithful.
Holy Homework. We are coming to the final days of a stressful year of pandemic isolation, social strife, frightful inflation, rising crime and commemorating hellish terrorism. So, instead of saying grace before our principal meal on Dec. 25, let’s sing this carol like the first-graders did: “The first NO HELL,” recalling Christ was born to bring faith, hope and love to everyone. Merry Christmas.
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