April 12, 2009

As Christians around the world wait by the tomb, reenacting the vigil of the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles, we do our best to replicate their grief, and gratitude, and hope.

Such efforts will shape the life of every sacramental Christian, from Rome to Vladivostok, Iona to Patagonia, who falters in the footsteps of our fathers: the foolish and failing fishermen, tax collectors, and disappointed Zionists who collected around the Lord.  Only the Virgin, we imagine, sat apart”€”she who had held the one Hope of our race inside her belly, who”€™d watched Hope die squirming, pinned to an instrument of Rome’s official sadism, who”€™d bathed Hope’s tortured body and laid it inside a womb of stone. She”€™d held all things in her heart, and knew this wasn”€™t the way Hope ends.

That didn”€™t staunch her anguish. She was a mother. Indeed, this fact might have sharpened the sword that pierced her heart on Calvary”€”that she alone knew that Jesus died not for reasons of state, at the insistence of the rabbis or the incitement of the mob. He died at once for man and for His Father, to do the will of the One who”€™d descended on her three decades before not as a swan but as a Dove. Her spouse, in a sense. And look what He was doing to their Son…. Of any human in history, it was Mary alone who had the perfect right to shake an angry fist at the Father. The fact that she didn”€™t is the one reason why we venerate her. But we can never hope this side of heaven to understand her.

This year we American Christians have spent Holy Week under the sentence of no lesser authority than Newsweek magazine, which announced in its recent issue “€œThe Decline and Fall of Christian America.”€ One might call this a piece of wishful thinking, and argue with the statistics adduced by the author. We could take refuge in the promises of our Lord, that the gates of Hell will not withstand the march of His holy Church”€”and focus on dreams of some post-American future. We could focus inward on our families, and decide not to trouble our souls with the ugly fact that the social movements emerging from America’s various churches in the past 30 years have finally failed, that we live and our children will grow up in a country where abortion is legal through all nine months of pregnancy, gay marriage will soon be recognized in 50 states, pornography is entirely unregulated and flows into every home like hot and cold running heroin, and state schools (when they teach at all) teach vulgar, sentimental hedonism that would have embarrassed the Marquis de Sade.

And in some sense, we must do all these things. We must dispute the prophecies of our demise, intended as they are to be self-fulfilling. We should treasure in our hearts the same supernatural hope that Christians carried in Constantinople after 1453, in Japan after the samurai turned against them, in France after 1789 and in Spain during the terror of the Republic. We have none of the certainty of the Virgin that the corpse of our particular church will rise and walk again, but we know that the seeds it planted cannot be extirpated entirely. We can nourish them in our homes, against the depredations of an increasingly hostile, powerful, and resource-hungry State.

All this is also cold comfort. For we are not simply souls, and we do not yet live in Heaven. We are not theological abstractions, soul-counters in the chess game played between our Adversary and Advocate. Instead, we are men and women born into a world where we are meant to live, for a time, and live decently after our fashion”€”alternating between self-assertion and self-sacrifice, justice and mercy, Apollo and Dionysius. Few of us are called to the dark and lonely path of mysticism, or the stony road to Joy trod by the ascetic. For most of us, occasional fasts and frequent works of Mercy must leaven a life of work and feast, love and laughter, many sins and much repentance. We live not as isolated souls but as bodies clustered in families, responsible before God for the well-being, human development, and Christian education of the helpless creatures born of our bodies.

We may not sacrifice them to egalitarian fantasies, by dumping them in dangerous schools out of “€œsolidarity”€ with “€œmarginalized.”€ Instead, our Christian duty might very well be to save and scrimp to keep them in gated communities and selective private schools. This might cut into our contributions to the soup kitchen; if so, so be it. To fathers we forthrightly say: Your own child has an absolute claim on your protection, in perfect justice. Violate justice, and your acts of mercy amount to simple theft. 

Nor can we liquidate the fragile, imperfect order our country has achieved at very great cost for the sake of imagined communities more “€œdiverse”€ or “€œequal,”€ by opening wide the gates of our bankrupt country to masses of men and women from lands where order never has prevailed”€”whose votes will entitle them to take the bread and education from the very mouths of our children. The order our forefathers fought to preserve is morally our inheritance, and our descendants”€™. If we lightly toss it away to feed the cheap labor machine of irresponsible companies, or build the multicultural Tower of Babel, our grandchildren, if they live, will live to curse us”€”to name us with Esau, and damn the mess of pottage that filled our bellies.

Let us remember this as our president promises to flood our unemployed country with millions more legal workers who “€œearned”€ that right by flouting our just and democratic laws. He will speak in the tongue of angels, selectively citing scripture passages that speak of acceptance and compassion. Such rhetoric can serve many masters, as Our Lord learned in the desert. It can fill the pockets of the greedy with good things, and the poor send empty away. It can make of an imperfect but orderly city a Hobbesean hell, where men share too few memories, mores or morals to live in peace. It can wash the souls of the lazy with the cheap grace of sentimentality, with the warm glow felt by the inner-city abortionist who throws a Kwanzaa party. That is the holy ecstasy of the modern American liberal. It originates with an angel, and says with him: “€œNon serviam.”€ It speaks of human potential, and whispers, “€œYou will not surely die.”€ It dares to us to abandon our solemn duties, and jump from the Temple Mount. Its bread, we are rapidly learning, still tastes like stone.


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