Thursday, March 20, 2008

Holy Thursday

This is Holy Thursday, and just as the Church shifts the calendar of fixed dates to accommodate the variable, we also shall shift our focus. The wonder is that we shall nevertheless consider the very next bit of Orthodoxy, since it plays a role in today's considerations.

As those who attend the evening Mass today shall see, although this Mass is the Mass of Masses - the anniversary, as it were, of the first Mass - the gospel reading for today is not about the Eucharist. It's about Subsidiarity. Yes. Did Dr. Thursday just say subsidiarity? Why? Click here.It's where Jesus washes the feet of the Apostles [John 13] Here we see the truth set forth in very clear, though quite horrifying detail. Horrifying, that is, to the ancient Aristotelian view of society with its slaves serving at the bottom and its "best" people ruling (Greek "aristocracy"= rule by the best) at the top. Horrifying, too, to the modern corporate mind which sees their megastructures built from the top down, paying the do-nothing executives VAST amounts and the least minimum possible to the underlings who actually do the work. (What? Not much different in 2300 years?)

But from Subsidiarity, we learn that the higher orders exist to serve the lower - which Jesus demonstrated by washing the Apostles' feet. Ever think about that? Those were bare, or at best sandal-clad feet, that had recently stomped through dust and mud and trash and ... ah... other things one might find on the horse and donkey and camel-travelled roads of that time.

Hey! That's slave work - being done by the Master? Yes: "He took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men..." [Phil 2:7]

Why do I use this word "horrifying"? What does that have to do with Orthodoxy, or with the current moment in the liturgical cycle?

Well, when one is about to die, one has to try to deal with the most important matters in one's life. As we know from St. Paul, and from the three Synoptic evangelists, the Eucharist was established amid the Passover rituals, as the new and everlasting passover-covenant. St. John reports how Jesus repeated this dogma six times, [see John 6] utterly scandalizing many who heard it, so much that they went away. We also know, from St. John, the lengthy prayer-instruction which Jesus gave just after the evening meal [John 14-16] - within which are more clues to this mystery.

But as I said, echoing St. John (13:1), Jesus knew he was about to die. This is the single most talked-about death, the single most dramatic death, the single most important death to occur in history, or even in fiction. This death is, as I have harped on previously, an important thing to remember. Dickens told us how important it was that we know, at the outset of the "Christmas Carol":
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. ...
There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
[C. Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"]
Likewise, we have to enter into this matter of Christ's death - and be fully convinced of it, in order to proceed into these next days.

But "Horrifying"? Why? Because of the death? Because of the manner of death?

No. Because it was so unreasonable, so inappropriate.

Peter, always the spokesman for the others, certainly thought so: "Lord, far be it from You [to die]..." (Mt. 16:22) And also, St. Paul called the crucifixion (1 Cor 1:23) a "stumbling block" to some - apparently the Greek word is "scandal" - that is, "the distressing effect on others of unseemly or unrighteous conduct". He also called it "foolishness" to others. That is, something quite irrational- the Greek word apparently is "moron".

Now, if you take just a few minutes from your day and read the next two or three paragraphs from Orthodoxy CW1:235-6. But don't worry if you cannot, we shall talk some more about them in the future. What does GKC tell us there? The critical line is in that first short paragraph, near the bottom of 235:
...what peril of morbidity there is for man comes rather from his reason than his imagination.
Well! Chesterton, if we are reading him right, seems to be hinting that the problem we men face comes from expecting REASONABLE things - presumably in places where things are just not going to be reasonable.

Or - maybe - just maybe - he's giving some kind of strange paraphrase ... ah ... of St. Paul.

Did I just write that?

Yes, I did. Just last week I was considering something, and I have begun to note some interesting alignments - maybe we might say that GKC is a disciple of St. Paul. I am not arguing this in any strict sense; nothing more, perhaps than a "slovenly poetry", without rhyme or even rhythm. Unreasonable, perhaps, but imaginative.

But there was one thing, NOT from Orthodoxy which hit me, as I thought of the events we recall this week, and considered my writing on our present book... this idea of a journey. And I recalled this, which I warn you may seem very blunt, and perhaps horrifying:
...the life of Jesus went as swift and straight as a thunderbolt. It was above all things dramatic; it did above all things consist in doing something that had to be done. It emphatically would not have been done, if Jesus had walked about the world forever doing nothing except tell the truth. And even the external movement of it must not be described as a wandering in the sense of forgetting that it was a journey. This is where it was a fulfilment of the myths rather than of the philosophies; it is a journey with a goal and an object, like Jason going to find the Golden Fleece, or Hercules the golden apples of the Hesperides. The gold that he was seeking was death. The primary thing that he was going to do was to die. [see Mt 16:21, Lk 12:49-50] He was going to do other things equally definite and objective; we might almost say equally external and material. But from first to last the most definite fact is that he is going to die.
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:339, emphasis added]
OK, now compare that with this:
For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ: and him crucified.
[St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:2)]
I know; the words are not even close. I said I was NOT making that kind of argument! But the thought is the same. It's what I said before; it's the Dickens opening. It's most unreasonable, it's putting the End - (isn't death an End?) at the very beginning. It's upside down. Of course it is! He told us so himself, feeding, as it were, GKC with whole rafts of paradoxes. "I have come to serve, not to be served, and to give his life..." [Mt 20:28, emphasis added; this verse is the very kernel and object of Subsidiarity!] Mary, his mother, carrying Jesus within her as an embryo of just a few cells, stated this of God: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble." [Luke 1:52] And Jesus repeated that this inversion shall occur [Lk 13:20] and, as we heard, demonstrated it by washing those dirty feet.

((An aside: Don't let anyone ever tell you Chesterton is the Master of Paradox. Really, that's just another title of our Lord. Just check out the gospels, and you'll see it's true.))

You look a bit concerned: Is that all? I'm still confused. Isn't there any more?

Sure there's more. There's a lot more - to Dickens, to St. Paul, to GKC - and to our remembrance of these next days. There will be, in a future chapter, very powerful and bitter - and shocking - comments about this death, and we shall see a courageous God, a God with his back to the wall, a God who was a rebel, a God who seemed to be atheistic (See CW1:343) But for today that is all you ought to consider.

May God give you the grace "to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified".... "to begin with. Or nothing wonderful can come of the story" you are about to hear. [1Cor2:2, cf. Dickens' "Christmas Carol"]

--Dr. Thursday

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