You can listen to “Fights in Good Faith,” my weekly radio program, streaming today at 5pm ET and tomorrow (Sun) at 1pm. I’ll update this post when the episode is available to download and stream.
Every week, I put up a “Radio Readings” post, so you can track down the books, articles, and (this week) failed Lenten penances that I cite on the show. So, without further ado, here’s what I’m talking about this week.
Lent – Offering God Whatever’s Hardest
- I wrote an essay on transactional understandings of salvation for Fare Forward this week.
A number of recommended Lenten sacrifices (sugar, coffee, etc.) seem to be suggested simply because they are difficult. As in the marshmallow test, the sacrifice is arbitrary, not a positive reshaping of our lives that we’d want to continue after Lent. These sacrifices are valuable only in that they are hard, a chance to do something costly for God.
It can be nice do something flamboyantly generous for a loved one, and Christ praised this impulse in the woman with the alabaster jar, but exhausting ourselves in arbitrary ways has the potential to remind us less of the woman with the costly oil, and more with all the other painful, pointless-feeling sacrifices we practice on a day to day basis.
- One discipline I tried out in Advent (and have wound up adopting year round) is setting a 1am bedtime.
- (You can see how I’m doing, since I track my bedtime on Beeminder)
Maundy Thursday – Refusing to be Indebted
- “In Which I Feel Like a Heel” – my difficulty in attending Maundy Thursday services in college didn’t have anything to do with my atheism
- I did wind up spending one Lent trying to adjust my response to gifts — with limited success
- “Debt, Gift, and Sacrifice in The Hunger Games“ – an essay by James R. Rogers for First Things:
One theme predominates in the book, and it’s self sacrifice. But there’s an arresting twist in how author Suzzane Collins develops the topic. The dramatic movement in the book rotates more around the willingness to receive a gift of sacrificial love from others than it concerns the giving of that gift.
To be sure, there is plenty of attention given to unalloyed self-sacrifice. Katniss’s participation in the Hunger Games resulted when she volunteered to substitute for her younger sister, Prim, who was initially selected by lottery to participate in the fight-to-the-death games. (If you haven’t read the book”the Capitol selects two young representatives from each of the twelve districts to fight to the death in the games, as tribute for their rebellion seventy-some years earlier.) Katniss never regrets her decision to offer her life in substitute for her sister.
But while Katniss freely sacrifices for those she loves, she has a much more difficult time being the recipient of a self-sacrificial gift.
Palm Sunday/Good Friday – “His Blood Be Upon Us”
- The play references is Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play (which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Forum Theatre)
- “On Palm Sunday, Blood Will Have Blood” – the essay I wrote on the unexpected consequences of one of the ugliest lines in the Palm Sunday reading:
Lector: When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying,Voice: I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.
Lector: And the whole people said in reply
Parishioners: His blood be upon us and upon our children.
When we got up to this bloody-minded passage, I was struck by the fact that, not long after the reading, His blood would be upon us in the form of the Eucharist. Nearly all of the lines spoken by the crowd are brutal, but this one is also prophetic, and indicates that God’s mercy can be stronger than the hatred of people. His blood returns to us, not to dirty our hands but to cleanse them of the stain that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten.”
I’m used to stories where people regret having their wishes granted, whether it’s Into the Woods or Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty or Trickster tales or fairy tales that haven’t been bowdlerized (especially Russian ones). But here, for once, a hateful wish is turned into a channel for grace, in the ultimate example of returning blessings for curses.
Easter – “The Last Enemy to be Destroyed is Death”
- Christus Victor is one understanding of the Resurrection, that puts the emphasis on Christ submitting to death and exploding it from within
- I’ve really enjoyed Richard Beck’s writings on this idea, first as blog posts at Experimental Theology, then in his book The Slavery of Death
- Diane Duane’s second book in her Young Wizards series (Deep Wizardry) tells a very explicit Christus Victor story, but the first book, So You Want to Be a Wizard has a moment at the climax that captures for me the feeling of Christ forcing a crack open for us to escape through:
If only there were some way he could be otherwise if he wanted to. For here was his name, a long splendid flow of syllables in the Speech, wild and courageous in its own way–and it said that he had not always been so hostile; that he got tired sometimes of being wicked, but his pride and his fear of being ridiculed would never let him stop. Never, forever, said the symbol at the very end of his name, the closed circle that binds spells into an unbreakable cycle and indicates lives bound the same way.
While Kit was still on the first part of the name she pulled out her pen, her best pen that Fred had saved and changed… Nita bent quickly over the Book and, with the pen, in lines of light, drew from that final circle an arrow pointing upward, the way out, the symbol that said change could happen–if, only if–and together they finished the Starsnuffer’s name in the Speech, said the new last syllable, made it read.
- When reading through Pope Francis’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart I wrote a reflection on Christus Victor: “Christ is an Outlier and Should Have Been Counted”
The other math-y way I tend to think of it is that, by being incarnate, Christ alters our understanding of what it means to be human. At baseline, when we start trying to decide what humans are (social animals? political animals?) we wouldn’t include anything that looks like Christ’s own divinity or intimacy with the Godhead. But, if he’s a member of the set “humans” albeit a very unusual member of the set, the general definition has to be large enough to cover him.
I can imagine the sudden recognition of Christ’s membership in the “human” set suddenly distorting all our metrics for briefly summarizing what the members of the set are. Regular outliers (let alone Georg-ian ones) are bad enough for skewing the mean, but add in someone who’s infinitely good? The math on the morals of an average human gets ridiculous.
It feels a lot like the same kind of absurdity that underlies the divide-by-zero logic of the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. Including Christ in a category tends to shatter the category, and, by the time it reforms to fit him, it’s gone through a “sea change, something rich and strange.”
Christ’s life and death distorts our old understanding of what it means to be human, like the heavy ball that pulls down a rubber sheet (and starts pulling everything else on the sheet toward it, along the incline). We’re freer to move toward him, following his example, as he makes all things new.
Have a blessed Holy Week.