A Word for Good Friday and Easter

I don’t think our deepest question is, ‘‘Is there a God?’’

I think our deepest question is, ‘‘Is there a God who’s with us in all this?’’

— Scott Erickson, “Stations in the City”

Folks, there are times when all of life can feel like a crucifixion and resurrection our only hope. The pandemic has been a dark time for so many of us—certainly for me—and the image of a God-with-us in suffering and death on the cross, the central emblem of both divine intimacy and infinite mercy, is as compelling as ever. But perhaps most of all because of the insane hope of Easter that follows it.

I think we’re all in need of some resurrection hope right now. As Cornel West wrote way back in 2008, we’re in a “hope on a tightrope” kind of moment, desperately in need of something to keep us afloat. Here’s West:

Culture, in part, provides people with the tools and resources to steel themselves against adversity and convinces them not to kill themselves or others. This is the reason why I am preoccupied with a sense of the tragicomic. At the moment in which we must look defeat, disillusionment, and discouragement in the face and work through it—a sense of the tragicomic keeps alive some sense of possibility. Some sense of hope. Some sense of agency. Some sense of resistance. We have not been too successful in persuading people not to kill themselves or others […] [F]rom street thugs to corporate thugs—people of color, women, youth, the working poor, gays, and lesbians are being targeted. I call it the gangsterization of America.

This is what happens in moments of cultural decay. This is what happens in moments of cultural breakdown. […] How do we analyze this present moment and discern some sources of vision and hope? I look at culture from the vantage point of a black freedom fighter. We are not going to be here that long. Culture moves us—it helps create the structures of meaning, feeling and purpose that keep the deep democratic tradition alive. […]

America finds itself looking to its blues people again [i.e., African-Americans] to provide vision to a nation with the blues. That is a source of hope. Yet hope is no guarantee. Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future.

For West, African-Americans—our nation’s “blues people”—are the cultural beacon that can help lead us towards hope. He’s not wrong. But when I think of hope, I still think of the original “blues” hero, the “man of Sorrows” himself: Jesus. It’s no wonder to me that African-Americans, despite how Christianity has been so utterly perverted by power over the course of Western history, still tend to gravitate to the Christian image of God. That’s the one that most speaks to them—the crucified God, a God who is with us in intimately in suffering, in our vulnerability, our weakness. But then one who also speaks to us of the miraculous hope of new life in rising from the grave.

Easter gives us that taste of hope we crave. And yet, as with so much of how God seems to speak to human beings, Easter itself was somewhat hidden. There was no fanfare, no grand display of power. Here’s Henri Nouwen:

The resurrection of Jesus was a hidden event. Jesus didn’t rise from the grave to baffle his opponents, to make a victory statement, or to prove to those who crucified him that he was right after all. Jesus rose as a sign to those who had loved him and followed him that God’s divine love is stronger than death. To the women and men who had committed themselves to him, he revealed that his mission had been fulfilled. To those who shared in his ministry, he gave the sacred task to call all people into the new life with him.

The world didn’t take notice. Only those whom he called by name, with whom he broke bread, and to whom he spoke words of peace were aware of what happened. Still, it was this hidden event that freed humanity from the shackles of death.

It’s the work of the church, in many respects, to keep that message of hope—that story of hope—alive in the world, and to practice love and grace and resurrection as a sign of the liberation the risen Christ offers. That’s why, for me, Christianity has been and continues to be the aspect of my own cultural heritage that has always given me the most hope, despite its massive cultural and institutional flaws as a religion stretching back two millennia. And I think that as religiousity has declined in the U.S. and become more ideological and polarized, politics has risen to take it’s place in our lives, to disturbing effect. That has been true as much within churches as without. (This recent article from The Atlantic really gets at the detrimental effect of replacing religion with politics in the U.S. context.)

Anyway, I don’t read Andrew Sullivan much anymore, but I occasionally check in with him. Today I was rewarded for it. Of all the things he writes about, Sullivan writes perhaps most compellingly for me about his faith. (He’s a gay, libertarian, Catholic. Go figure.) His latest weekly dish—titled “Religion And The Decline of Democracy“—is really the message I think I most want to share with you right now. It’s long, but surely worth the read. Here goes:

When I finally head back to church this weekend, after a year of Covid-avoidance, it is going to feel a little strange. These past 12 months constitute the longest stretch of time I’ve been away from Mass since I was a toddler. And, I’m not going to lie, part of me rather enjoyed the sudden plague-mandated dispensation. I became used to the lazy, empty, gently unfolding Sundays, that came with a bonus: no guilt for missing Mass! They’ve grown on me, I have to say. Getting my lazy ass out of my apartment and to the Cathedral each week was always an effort — and I had begun to skip it more often than I used to anyway. 

I’d had periods of withdrawal from church before. During the AIDS crisis, a homily so enraged me I couldn’t return for a few months. It happened at a Mass on the weekend that the quilt, commemorating so many victims of AIDS, was being displayed down on the Mall. I’d spent much of the day there — so my feelings were raw. The Gospel reading that day, amazingly, was on the ten lepers Jesus healed, of whom the only one who thanked him was a Samaritan. Its relevance to me at that moment was overwhelming: a person stigmatized by the culture and then stigmatized by disease was the one who morally stood out. 

And then the homily began: “Today, we have no real equivalence to leprosy and its stigmas, so perhaps we need to analogize to cancer.”

I barely heard the rest of it because my heart was beating so fast, my mind reeling, my heart re-broken. I went up to the priest afterwards, and said to him, with a snarl: “Have you heard of AIDS, father? It’s in the papers.” He looked at me blankly for a moment and then said: “Well, I didn’t think we’d have many people affected by that here.”

Years later, when the sex abuse crisis hit, I also had to take a breather. My parish had once been led by Cardinal McCarrick, one of the worst abusers, and then by Cardinal Wuerl, who was, at best, an enabler. I took some months off to let my rage at the hypocrisy and pathology dissipate a bit. When I returned, I stayed in the side-chapel for Saint Francis for the Mass for a few months, and only emerged into the nave for communion. Weird, I know. But it helped me create a barrier between the rottenness of the institutional church and the sacraments I still needed.

I know many of you will be rolling your eyes at this point. Why on earth are you still grappling with this stuff? Why didn’t you leave years ago? Become an Episcopalian or something. And stop writing about mumbo-jumbo. I remember my first, temporary departure from Mass had Christopher Hitchens extremely excited.

So why go back?

When I ask myself what exactly I’ve missed, I realize it sure isn’t a weekly revelation. I don’t expect to feel something profound every time I go to Mass — because most of the time, I don’t, and rarely have. Every now and again, grace appears. But it’s rare. And it isn’t necessary. The one thing Catholicism teaches the bored and distracted church-goer is that your own mood doesn’t really matter. The consecration will happen regardless. Your inspiration is not the point. And what makes this all cohere somehow is physical, communal ritual — and that, I realize, is what I really miss. 

I miss the silent genuflection; the chanting in unison with others; the simple standing up and kneeling down and standing up again. I miss the messy democracy of the communion line, and the faces I recognize from decades in my parish, and the faces I don’t. I miss enacting something ineffable with my body, using words I never chose myself, and using them uniquely in this space. I miss the irrational, collective order of it all. I miss the liberation of submission to something far larger than myself. 

And, beneath all this, only poking above ground every now and again, I miss the weekly reminder of what I deeply believe within the folds of my consciousness: the command of universal love; the fact of life after death; the radical truth of experiential mystery; and the centrality of the Gospels to eternity. Many atheist or agnostic friends sometimes ask me how they too can have a leap of faith. And the truth is I have no idea. I have never leapt anywhere. I have trudged, stumbled, meandered, persisted, and resisted all my life. But to have one part of my existence directed to the timeless and the mysterious just once a week all my life has given me something priceless. 

I couldn’t say exactly how this counter-rational aspect of my life affects the rest of me, but it definitely stabilizes things. It gives perspective. It makes the awfulness of the world less intolerable, it momentarily breaks what Michael Oakeshott called “the deadliness of doing”. It makes politics less fraught, because the religious person knows that the ultimate questions can never be resolved on earth, and it is foolish to try too hard to achieve things that humans cannot achieve.

Jean Cocteau once described smoking opium as an interlude in the rush of existence. “Everything one achieves in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death,” he wrote. “To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.” I feel the same way about religion. It is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done.

It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is. Maybe it’s primarily a relief for those of us who live in our heads too much, who live very online lives, or who use words of our own all the time. But I see the calm it gives others too: the repetition of little acts, the recitation of the same words, the unity that such rituals can give a life over the decades. I saw it in my Irish grandmother — rattling through the Rosary like a freight train.

And when this space disappears in a society, you can see people find ways to replicate it elsewhere. Last week, Gallup put out a poll that shows for the first time that affiliation with a church, synagogue or mosque no longer defines a majority of Americans. In the two decades since the turn of the Millennium, religious affiliation has gone from around 70 percent, where it had stood, more or less, since the 1930s, to a mere 47 percent. Among Millennials, only 36 percent say they belong to an organized religion. 

But what we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. The soaring popularity of meditation and yoga, and the greater acceptance and use of psychedelic drugs to replicate the effect of practiced spirituality helps reveal the need. And fake religions — like the Prosperity Gospel — spring up where tradition and theology have already surrendered to greed.

But the most dangerous manifestation of the collapse of the old religions, with their millennia of experience and honing, is the conflation of religious impulses and politics. The fusion of evangelical Christianity with the Republican party blasphemously climaxed in the Trump cult. I’ve written before about Christianism, precisely to distinguish it from Christianity. And it was hard not to notice classic wooden crosses raised aloft among the crowd that invaded the Capitol last January 6. They jostled next to Confederate flags and Trump merch. Some, like Eric Metaxas, have completely lost the plot. And if the contemporary GOP is, for many, the most visible symbol of organized Christianity in America, how can you blame them for despising it?

And in wokeness, you see a similar tragedy. The transcendent has been banished in favor of a profoundly atheist view of the world as merely the arrangement of power structures. But the zeal of religious faith propels the ideology. It is Manichean — seeing the world only as good or evil, antiracist or racist, with virtue attached, horrifyingly, to skin color or gender. It can brook no compromise. It denies the individual soul. It seeks to punish and banish sinners as zealously as it insists on a total psychological re-birth for everyone who joins up. It demands confessions of sin; it requires the renunciation of the self in favor of the identity group; it urges, as so many sermons do, that people “do the work” every day to bring about the Kingdom of Anti-Racism.

These pseudo-religions will fail. They are too worldly, too rooted in contemporary culture wars, too baldly tribal, and too shallow in their understanding of the world to have much staying power. But they can do immense damage to souls and our society in the meantime. They lack the one thing that endures in religious practice: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect.

It took centuries for Christianity to begin to model that kind of humility and conviction, and to reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. And it would be a terrible shame if America threw that glorious inheritance away.

That says a lot of what I feel too at this moment in my life and in my faith. I miss church. Thank God for the consolation and unfathomable mercy of Good Friday and the astonishing hope of Easter. Stay safe out there, friends.

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