Fifth week of Lent begins tomorrow... the weight of the Season is felt and its known climax looms. It is probably understandable that many people are already speaking of the events that are commemorated in Holy Week. Today, for example, I saw a Passion play. The Passion play is a form that could demand an entry all its own: there are merits to the form that I am beginning again to appreciate - the foremost being that everyday folk assume the roles of the principle characters in one incredibly potent chapter in the total divine drama (a drama to which these folk are hoping to saturate their lives). Watching the play, I was taken by the manner in which these fine amateurs sometimes performed, and could not escape the thought that it communicated a particularly important truth that we were all amateurs when it came to this performance. Our artistry is not sufficient for the best portrayal of the divine prototype. History often, and God above history always, finds our projects vain and clownish - and the audience's nervous giggles sometimes mirrored this too. And yet there is real appreciation for the performance, and a knowledge that our fitful attempts have their perfectly completed original. The latter being the only way in which we can have the courage to act mimetically at all.
Or, maybe not. Maybe that is too labored an interpretation of the form...
Ultimately, the play served to show one essential truth about Fallen Man. At the heart of it, Man's best efforts crucify an innocent man, and in so doing crucify God. Lenten hymnody is filled with testimonies to this truth. It is crucial to know and appropriate it in order to then appropriate the great shock and wonder of the Resurrection. That Resurrection which renders this truth about man more than mere evidence for resignation in the face of a seemingly intractable nature... for one more species of a pagan total renunciation, or total affirmation, of the world as it is. Without that Resurrection, we have one more martyr story which may serve, at best, as a source of heroic inspiration. At worst, it becomes the previous sort of warrant for resignation before the crush of fate. And this is the great flaw in the Passion play; its usual form excludes the Resurrection. I was happy to see that the parish violated the purity of the form and concluded with the Resurrection appearances.
But, already too many words about Passion plays, and now I am even running beyond into Easter! This does serve to illustrate the manner in which they are integrally connected phenomena that cannot be separated without violence done to both.
But, what I think may not be being said, is this: The Passion is about more than vicarious substitutionary atonement (that is, about Christ's sacrificial death for the sake of us all)... it is not less than this, but it is about more, and there is much, much more to this total drama.
Christ does not only come for us to be a Sacrifice. Christ comes to give us "Life and Life abundantly". It is true to say that Christ as Sacrifice and Christ as bringer of Life are not two mutually exclusive things, that they are in fact intimately connected, but given the propensity for so much of the former and little of the latter to be given center stage (so to speak), at this time anyhow, I think it safe to distinguish them for a time.
I became aware of this necessity recently when I was dining with an older gentlemen who became somewhat interested in my convictions in theological matters:
"You mean you don't think Muslims go to heaven if they don't accept Christ?"
"I think that whoever receives salvation, it is because of Christ and what He has done. Which makes me a Christian, go figure."
This moved him to dismiss the "acceptance of Christ stuff" and assert that we were judged "by what we have done."
"Surely, good works have a role in things, and we will certainly be judged, but this isn't what saves us."
So, after this, I asked rhetorically, "Are you sure that you want to be judged according to your works, that these works are able to cover you?"
Soon the conversation turned, probably mercifully, to other things, but it left an impression on me.
What I realized was that this particular person, like so many others, lacked a robust sense of the High Life that we were created and redeemed in order to enjoy... so, naturally it was easy for him to tick off a few particularly morally repugnant crimes and misdemeanors, find that he had not done them, and to think that therefore neither he nor God should be all that unhappy with his life performance.
All of this is to say that Christ comes to describe and give over to us a wonderful, beautiful, radiant sort of life that would make all but the reprobate feel the majesty of being created "a little lower than the angels" and redeemed to "partake of the divine nature". A life that makes one weep for joy to behold. He comes to invite us to sainthood.
Too often, I believe, we cast all of our absurdity, crime, betrayal, and ugliness onto Christ easily enough (often not even really knowing which of these are the most offensive while clinging to things that God may reckon venial), but do not see how we should rightly be saddened by the simple fact that we are not living the ecstatic, aesthetic adventure of sainthood!
That is a life - a vibrant experience - whose forfeiture shows our sullen, deadened, lack of zest, and should bring the deep repentance which is the opened fist that may now receive what was once so callously forfeited. It is a life that the Season of Easter should be bursting forth to describe and lay before the faithful,
and it is a life that I truly want for myself and will die trying to obtain.