Sunday, 5 April 2009

As Holy Week Begins...

Now we enter the home stretch. There is anticipation in the air. Weighty deeds are imminent.

The Mysteries we approach this week are opaque, too dense to see through, like murky waters, or like blinding light (or darkness, for that matter). All suffering, all evil gathers, brought to a point, a white-hot intensity, then turned completely on its head, to become eucatastrophic joy beyond all imagining, unlooked for, unhoped for.

But that is not yet. The thing must be lived in order. Suffering and evil reach their zenith first. And there is no Deus ex machina. No salvation at the last moment. No leaping desperately from the car before it plunges over the precipice. No, it plunges and explodes with all aboard. Salvation comes not in the nick of time but after it. And not even immediately after. There is a whole day of unmitigated and numbed despair, and that too must be lived through (that is why, as Christians, we also observe Holy Saturday, just as much as Good Friday and Easter Sunday, or at least we should- the Resurrection did not happen immediately and we live that truth, acknowledging and observing it, and wrestling with it if needs be).

Here we watch as the total revelation of God is displayed- not a tyrant, not a blind watchmaker, not a divine child-abuser, not even primarily a cosmic judge and, most mysteriously, not a Being Who snaps His fingers to make all evil and suffering disappear in a flash, even when it is directed towards Him. How can we fathom this fact? How can we understand the heart of this Person?

How much does my soul cry out for all ills to be at an end? Wouldn't it be simple, Lord, to just make all the bad stuff go away? You healed people. You are not impotent. Do You prolong suffering because You take pleasure in it? Surely, at the very least, You could manipulate circumstances so that all those who commit evils and remain ever unrepentant should be the sole ones to suffer in the world? Why should a person who does their best, who seeks to help others, who raises their family in love, reaches out to those in need, who sets an example for others to follow and inspires virtue and love in those they meet; surely such a person ought to be spared suffering?

Even given a basic reading of Christian truth, one questions. If Christ's death on the cross was meant to save the world, why is the world still screwed up? What changed? Like the story of the rabbi whose disciple heard about the gospel from a Christian missionary and ran to his master, shouting, "Rabbi, Rabbi, did you hear? The Messiah has already come." The Rabbi took a quick look out the window, saw things proceeding as normal, children playing and fighting, merchants hawking their wares at inflated prices, a thief stealing an apple from a cart, a couple having an argument in a building across the way. He turned back and said simply, "No, he hasn't."

Christ's coming ought to have changed something, oughtn't it? If He came to save us from suffering and death, why is there still suffering and death? "O Death, where is thy sting?" sounds like a bad joke if you say it at a funeral.

The medievals wrestled with a different but related queston. If salvation had to come through the blood of Christ, why couldn't He just have pricked His finger to save us? If it had to come through His death, why couldn't He just die in His sleep? What is gained by making it excruciating and agonising?

But none of these is the fundamental question and all of them ultimately miss something. The fundamental question, as Fr. Greg Homeming from the Carmelite monastery at Varroville teaches, is Paul's question on the Damascus Road: "Who are You, Lord?"

We live these mysteries to find out, to discover Who He is. And it is not something that can be summed up in a sentence or, for that matter, a sermon. It can only be known through a lived relationship. Even then, as our knowledge deepens, He remains opaque to us.

Partly because so foreign. He does not love as we do. We love after a whole host of criteria have been fulfilled eg. not too annoying or embarrassing in social situations, not too severe body odour, etc. Solid and committed friendships are rare for us and require great effort. We accumulate as we go on in life old friends and acquaintances with whom we fell out or just lost contact. We are quick to anger, quick to ignore, painfully slow to exhibit steadfast, ongoing love. But He is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Ex 34:6).

And this suffering thing is utterly inscrutable to us. In Orwell's 1984, there is a point when the protagonist is in prison and is beaten violently. Whereas before he had proclaimed his willingness to suffer for what he thought was right, in the moment of suffering his thoughts are different. He realises that when one is in pain, all abstract thoughts and ideals dissolve and the mind is possessed by only one thought- to do anything to make the pain stop. Yet Christ, Who certainly had the ability to make it stop (what must John have thought, who had seen Him raise the dead and even transfigured, and here nothing?), didn't.

Why does God choose to endure suffering rather than simply make it cease to be? Couldn't all the benefits of the resurrection, the grace of our salvation, have been given simply by divine fiat? This is not a question to be answered blithely but to be wrestled with in the midst of the full stream of human life and experience. And it leads less to a discussion of soteriology than to the revelation of the heart of a Person. The fact that Christ suffered, the fact that suffering and death still exist even now, must tell us something about Who God is.

There is a verse in one of the hymns sung today (Palm Sunday) that runs, "The winged squadrons of the sky/ Look down with sad and wondering eyes/ To see th'approaching sacrifice." To contemplate these Mysteries, too big and too obscure and ineffable for us, and to contemplate this Person, is to take that attitude. Sad and wondering eyes. Our grief and despair are deeper than that of the atheist, and our joy is higher. But the joy is not yet. There is no dilution. Both excruciating agony and pain and devastation and loneliness and alienation on the one hand, and utter bliss and eucatastrophic joy and exultation and glory and ecstatic delight on the other, are taken in chemical purity. If we are to believe John (Rev 13:8), both in their own way lie at the foundation of reality, possessing the heart of the Being Who is the ground of the existence of all things.

There is more. The angels may look on with sad and wondering eyes, and so may we. But there is more than that for us. He is Man then, now and forevermore, so all mankind shares something with God now which the angels do not. Furthermore, we are members of Him through baptism and we are doomed and privileged therefore to participate with Him in the eternal Mystery of His love. Our reception of and participation in the sacrifice of Calvary at the Mass is the heart of this, but our daily life flows from it, like the river from the Temple in Ezekiel. He is not just our example. We live His love with Him and in Him, and that means there is nothing that He experienced that should not be ours. All of us are called to the Cross. All of us are summoned to the pit of agony and despair with Him so that His glorious resurrection may be ours. That is the terrible condition that Paul speaks of in Romans 8 and which we so easily pass over- "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified with Him." (Rom 8:17) In Paul also we find that most mysterious of clues as to why nothing seems to have changed and suffering and evil still exist in the world: "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His Body, the Church." (Col 1:24). There are deep and terrible realities here, beyond our grasp, of which we can only get fleeting, by turns terrifying and enrapturing, glimpses.

St Francis, I am told, used to meditate for hours and days at a time on the Passion and, following the teaching of Paul (Gal 2:20), would imagine Himself on the cross with Christ, trying to understand what it was like to have men hammering nails through your flesh and to love them utterly as they were doing it.

We each have our own path to walk with Him, but every one includes this. You can't be a Christian and get out of it. Narrow is the way. Lent has been a long preparation for it. Now we begin to enter into the heart of the Mystery, into the heart of God. May God open our hearts to welcome what we would otherwise flinch from. May we begin to know the loss of all things, the prospect of utter devastation, that we may know the pinnacles of joy that follow. Teach us the meaning of what the angels watch with sad and wondering eyes. Teach us Who You are, Lord.

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