It’s obvious to any reader of this blog that I do not keep a very frequent posting schedule. But if anything has regularly scratched the posting itch here in the past few years it has been the Christian observance of the Sacred Triduum, the three liminal days between death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Maybe it’s because the events of the Triduum provoke everybody from the artist and poet to the musician, wayfarer, and theologian. Or maybe because it really provokes the teller and listener of stories. Liturgically, the Triduum is considered one event, one extended narrative. Michael Sean Winters explained today (emphasis mine),
At the close of tonight’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, there will be no final prayer and closing blessing or dismissal. After the Sacred Body of the Lord is carried to the Altar of Repose, and venerated there, the ministers will depart in silence. Tomorrow, at the beginning of the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, the ministers enter and leave in silence and there is no “In the name of the Father…” at the beginning of the liturgy and no closing blessing at the end. After the profound reverence before the cross, the presider immediately intones the opening prayer. At the end, all is silence. On Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil, the service again begins abnormally, with the lighting of the Paschal fire. Only at the end of the Vigil Mass do we return to normal when the presider imparts a blessing and the people are dismissed by the deacon… the significance is obvious: The Triduum is one, long, continuous prayer just as the work of salvation, the Paschal Mystery, is one event, one mystery.
I began this Lent by dipping into a literary reader for Lent which declared that “Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy…” The article begins by quoting Thomas Merton: “Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Or, to put it in an other’s way, to be surprised by joy.
Lent is always especially needed to exercise in me this capacity to be surprised. An ever present temptation, favored by the Pharisees, but much older in origin, has a familiar ability to kill this capacity in me- that is, when I reduce Christ to what I can measure by my own ideas or sentiments. “Christ” becomes only what I can think or feel about him. The unfortunate result is I’m left merely with an object for my own manipulation, rather than a person who changes and moves me. And this brushes up against a temptation at least as old as Simeon the Magician offering to buy the power of God’s spirit from the apostles- the comoodification of the divine (turns out it’s older than Marx). In the end, by predetermining the possibility of this “Christ” to what I know I can expect, surprise is not just rendered unlikely, but not possible.
Old stumbling blocks, but the old ones tend to stick around and thrive in the present when the joy of encountering the noun, the fact, the person Christ has so many multiplications of the adjective, “Christian”, to wade through. It had one writer bamboozled, i.e. Walker Percy, author of the last and greatest self-help book, and fellow resident of Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” American south, who wrote,
The Christian novelist is like a man who goes to a wild lonely place to discover the truth within himself and there after much ordeal and suffering meets an apostle who has the authority to tell him a great piece of news and so tells him the news with authority. He, the novelist, believes the news and runs back to the city to tell his countrymen, only to discover that the news has already been broadcast, that this news is in fact the weariest canned spot announcement on radio-TV, more commonplace than the Exxon commercial, that in fact he might just as well be shouting Exxon! Exxon! for all anyone pays any attention to him.
So how is one to distinguish the Exxon “Christ”, sold to the relief of whatever parameter of thoughts and feelings we’re content to hold onto, from the actual person of Christ who- Christians profess- lived, died, rose again, and provokes us now?
Last summer I picked up this card in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (you can see the actual painting in my video post from the same church) and I found on the back of it the following, attributed to Saint Augustine:
Your steps are your sentiments,
Your path is your will,
By loving you arise,
By neglecting you fall,
You are on earth, but in heaven, if you love God.
Whoever wrote it was onto something good. When we identify the steps- our sentiments- as the path itself, or even the object of love, you can properly speak of sentimentality, and this misidentification is exactly what Simeon’s Exxon-Christ exploits. But possibly-Augustine cautions us, this doesn’t mean you should discard sentiment altogether. Abusus non tollit usum. Abuse does not preclude proper use. Rather, he proposes, these sentiments are the phenomenon that can lead you out of that vicious circle when they are recognized for what they are- steps, which point beyond themselves, lead you out, that is educate you, on a path formed by your choice to love or neglect… what? God, he says, pulling no punches. This seems to thrust us back to our original problem, since this means the steps can lead away from God, but something new is introduced here, for it also means they can lead to God, and that we can choose this, throwing a wrench into the gears of Simeon-hucksters everywhere- to know you are free. So our sentiments themselves can be educated, i.e. turned, or converted, if you like, to the reality of the person they originally responded to.
Pope Francis said it much simpler yesterday, “In these days may we not only observe the Lord’s Passion, but truly enter into its mystery, making our own the sentiments of Christ. In this way, our Easter will indeed be blessed.”
In the article which I quoted from at the beginning Winters has a suggestion as to how to enter into it in this way: re-live the experience of his disciples.
We must let ourselves experience these events sequentially, as the disciples did. Tonight, we must go into the Upper Room for a meal, aware that something is in the offing, but unsure of what that something might be… Tomorrow, we must acquaint ourselves with the despair, the fear, and the confusion of the apostles: This was not how things were supposed to turn out! … At the Great Vigil, or Sunday morning, whichever service you attend, try and wonder at the sense of surprise the disciples must have felt. When we discover the empty tomb, do we feel the need to go and search for the Lord? Do we recognize Him when we encounter Him? Do we let Him call us by name, so that we might recognize it is He? … Can we say and sing with Paul (and with Handel): Death is swallowed up in Victory. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?
This is why I need the to follow the Triduum. Because this sentimental education is a process. It’s not automatic, as if I could “get” Christ by formulating an idea or feeling a particular way all the time. It begins by encountering a person, and if we know anything from literature, art, theology, philosophy, our own lives, the drama of the person is revealed through the events he undergoes. Only by entering into this drama, with all the risks it entails, can I possibly see something new, something like joy.