Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!”
–Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
“Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.”
–The Killer Angels
It’s a week of significant anniversaries in North America. July 1 is the 146th year since the passage of the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada, July 1-3 is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the so-called turning point in the American Civil War, and July 4th marks 237 years since the Declaration of Independence provided justification for a military rebellion already in progress. Canada Day is rather less blood-spattered than the American anniversaries, largely thanks to the outcomes of much earlier battles in Quebec in 1759and 1775, and along the Niagara frontier and Lower Canada in 1813-14. These commemorations, however, suggest how much human history celebrates noble gestures, great events, and admirable acts of courage, while glossing over base expediencies, savage violence, and cold exercises of power.
But Auden perhaps oversimplifies matters in the coda to his poem “Archaeology,” when he writes:
one moral, at least, may be drawn,
to wit, that all
our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,
being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.
History may be written by the victors, but it catalogues events that shape our present lives in ways we can’t imagine otherwise. This side of the Eschaton, we live in a world where the predominant shade is neither black nor white, but gray. What we call history, then, is an autobiography of the powers and principalities upon which we now depend.
The readings this week, in contrast, celebrate small events, the effects of which are lost on writers of history. Naaman arrives in Israel with a letter from the King of Aram and money to burn, hoping to be cured of leprosy. What Israel’s king interprets as a geopolitical trap, Elisha envisions as a prophetic moment. But the kicker is that Naaman’s healing is achieved without fanfare or confrontation, but by taking a bath in a rather unimpressive river. Without war or bribes, one man is healed. In the alternate first reading from the closing chapter of Isaiah, Jerusalem is presented not as a world power, but as a nursing mother comforting mournful children. Not exactly the stuff of Thucydides, Edward Gibbon, or Winston Churchill.
In Luke’s account of the sending of the seventy, Jesus counsels lamb-like behavior in a world of wolves. Peace is both message and means, while rejection is to be met with cautionary words, not retaliation. Though the fruit of the disciples’ faithfulness is described as signaling the defeat of Satan himself, history books have little to say on the matter.
Paul, in writing to those foolish Galatians, gets to the heart of things: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
The symbol of that to which we are called is neither a crown, nor a flag, nor a coat of arms, but an instrument of capital punishment on which our Lord has suffered and over which he has triumphed. The history of Christendom catalogues what failures spring from failing to grasp such paradox.
About that, two remarks are worth remembering this week. The first comes again from Auden’s “Archaeology”:
There’s nothing the Crucified
would like less
than butchery to appease Him.
The second is from an essay on tragedy in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Explorations in Theology: Creator Spirit: “The Resurrection is not in any way a fifth act with a happy ending…”
Von Balthasar’s point is that the resurrection does not so much negate the crucifixion as absorb it. Even in triumph over cross and grave, the resurrected Jesus bears the wounds of crucifixion. Jesus Christ is Lord, yet the truth of that Lordship is revealed in a wounded body, scarred but not destroyed by that which, in Paul’s words, crucifies the world to us and us to the world.
In this, we suffer – if ever so subtly – with Jesus, through a graced and prophetic history of compassion, from the Latin, compassio, “to suffer with.” In bearing, as Paul says, the marks of Jesus on our body, we are called to be – and given the grace to become – not murdering angels but suffering and compassionate women and men. Amid the celebrations, flags, and fireworks, remember that.