Sunday, September 14, 2008

Paradox Incarnate: the Victory of the Cross

It can be hard for some to come smack up against the crazy contrasts of the Cross.

You can read about it in several of GKC's books, not only The Ball and the Cross which seems so crazy at times. But to have a feast - to make a special day for celebrating a death (though it be one which gives life) or exulting over an old obsolete object of torture and capital punishment, so much as to have a special annual celebration about its most historic use? This seems even more crazy.

But then, that's Christianity: a scandal and a foolishness. That's the cross. And there cannot be Christianity without the cross.

Today, Christians of every version or edition ought to recall St. Paul's words: "While I was among you I determined to speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified." (I quote from memory, this is really 1Cor2:2) Or, to put it in the words of another great Pauline disciple:
They [the early Christians in ancient Rome] seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seemed quite unnaturally joyful about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood. According to other accounts God was not exactly dead after all; there trailed through the bewildered imagination some sort of fantastic procession of the funeral of God, at which the sun turned black, but which ended with the dead omnipotence breaking out of the tomb and rising again like the sun.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:295-6]
But you may recall we were talking recently about paradox. The idea that a death can give life is not all that unusual - the whole nature of food, in all its forms, even in its solar origin, is a matter of death that gives life. But I cannot examine that in detail just now. Rather I would like to offer for your consideration a rather ridiculous poem, full of odd contradictions, wherein the sandy old place of capital punishment is converted to another use. But that's not the real paradox.

No, the paradox is in the titles of a certain Woman who appears in GKC's poem. And that's all you really need to know. Maybe then you'll understand all that other stuff about food and death too.

The Arena
Causa Nostrae Laetitae
Dedicated to the University of Our Lady, Indiana

There uprose a golden giant
On the gilded house of Nero
Even his far-flung flaming shadow and his image swollen large
Looking down on the dry whirlpool
Of the round Arena Spinning
As a chariot-wheel goes spinning; and the chariots at the charge.

And the molten monstrous visage
Saw the pageants. saw the torments.
Down the golden dust undazzled saw the gladiators go,
Heard the cry in the closed desert,
Te salutant morituri,
As the slaves of doom went stumbling, shuddering, to the shades below.

"Lord of Life, of lyres and laughter,
Those about to die salute thee,
At thy godlike fancy feeding men with bread and beasts with men,
But for us the Fates point deathward
In a thousand thumbs thrust downward,
And the Dog of Hell is roaring through the lions in their den."

I have seen, where a strange country
Opened its secret plains about me,
One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one
Seen afar, in strange fulfillment,
Through the sunlit Indian summer
That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.

She too looks on the Arena,
Sees the gladiators in grapple,
She whose names are Seven Sorrows and the Cause of All Our Joy,
Sees the pit that stank with slaughter
Scoured to make the courts of morning
For the cheers of jesting kindred and the scampering of a boy.

"Queen of Death and deadly weeping
Those about to live salute thee,
Youth untroubled; youth untortured; hateless war and harmless mirth
And the New Lord's larger largesse
Holier bread and happier circus,
Since the Queen of Sevenfold Sorrow has brought joy upon the earth."

Burns above the broad arena
Where the whirling centuries circle,
Burns the Sun-clothed on the summit, golden-sheeted, golden shod,
Like a sun-burst on the mountains,
Like the flames upon the forest
Of the sunbeams of the sword-blades of the Gladiators of God.

And I saw them shock the whirlwind
Of the World of dust and dazzle:
And thrice they stamped, a thunderclap; and thrice the sand-wheel swirled;
And thrice they cried like thunder
On Our Lady of the Victories,
The Mother of the Master of the Masterers of the World.

"Queen of Death and Life undying
Those about to live salute thee;
Not the crawlers with the cattle; looking deathward with the swine,
But the shout upon the mountains
Of the men that live for ever
Who are free of all things living but a Child; and He was thine."

[GKC CW10:108-109]

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