Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; Luke 20:9-19 (Lent 5 Year C Nippon Seikokai Lectionary)
Possibly the most famous scene of any in Dostoevsky’s novels is that of the Grand Inquisitor in The Karamasov Brothers. Christ returns to walk the streets of Seville. He is greeted with joy. He even raises a girl from the dead. And then the Inquisitor arrests him.
The charge against him? He could have turned stones to bread. He could have fed the poor. He could have revealed his divine authority by escaping from the Cross in the hands of angels. But no. He offered only spiritual bread, and left humanity free to choose whether or not to accept it.
Where he failed, the Church succeeded. Where Christ refused to take the sword, the Church united itself to Caesar’s sword and brought order to the world – and with it, bread. Christ’s return just gets in the way. And so, the Inquisitor decides, He must die again.
God left humanity, under the name of Adam, in charge of a luscious and sprawling vineyard. He has entrusted this world to our care. And yet we forget that we are only tenants, and this is not our current home. The master sends his prophets to remind us that everything we have here is only on long term loan, but that a more glorious inheritance awaits us those who are loyal tending the garden. Yet we drive them out and beat them. He even sent his Son, and we killed Him, thinking we could seize the world and to do a better job.
I wonder, can we be so sure that if Christ were to come among us tomorrow, we would not do the same again? Sometimes, I get the sense that the Church thinks it knows better than Christ. That if he came now, among the Church’s frantic busyness and desperate initiatives, we might just find him a bit of a nuisance. That we might find him getting in the way. If, that is, we managed to move our eyes away from all our glowing rectangles long enough even to notice him.
How far the modern world is away from Saint Paul. Although one of the greatest of saints, he writes that he is not yet perfect. And yet, to him, everything the world has to offer is just so much rubbish compared with the hidden treasure, the pearl beyond price, which he already has: knowledge of Christ, and a place in Christ. He wouldn’t exchange it for all the bread in the world. He possessed the most valuable thing anyone can possess, and so even in his poverty, even among his beatings and shipwrecks, he is the richest man in the world. He has something which no money can buy, a gift freely given. And we, no more perfect than St Paul, have it too. It is not something that we can work for or earn. This should put even our most severe anxieties into perspective, come whatever plagues or wars.
Nietzsche said that if Christians really think they are saved, they could at least look like it. The son of a Protestant minister, he knew what he was talking about. When Our Lord calls us to hide fasting by washing our faces and combing our hair, this isn’t because he is encouraging us to mask some persistent, inner Christian misery. On the contrary, the Lenten discipline of detaching ourselves from reliance on material things, including food and luxuries, is meant to liberate us from things which ultimately cannot give us lasting joy. I’d strongly recommend liberation from mobile phones as part of this discipline. Only when we are free from the desire for things which cannot give us eternal life, can we find the lasting, permanent joy that Christ is freely offering us. Obsessing about what to eat, or what to wear, or what other people are saying about us online is a recipe for a life of unhappiness. And let me make it clear, Christ wants us to be happy. This doesn’t mean having a permanent smile fixed on our faces, but it does mean that even in suffering and anxiety and darkness, we can always tap into that unfathomable, bottomless well of deep joy which is God and which springs in every human heart. Like the joy invoked by the best of music, it will be mingled with tears, but it is nonetheless joy. The Way of the Cross is the Way of joy.
That’s why in English, we call the day that Jesus died “Good Friday.” a strange name for the day the son of God was killed. Strange, but apposite: because without the Crucifixion, there can be no Resurrection. Without Good Friday, there can be no Easter. Without tears there can be no joy. But as God can make water flow from the desert, so from an instrument of torture and death can he bring eternal life.
Yet here we are, still a week away from the dramatic turn to Holy Week; and even in Lent, every Sunday remains a feast day, a celebration of the Resurrection, a mini-Easter. For what we receive in the bread of Holy Communion is not, as sometimes crudely caricatured, the dead flesh of Christ: we receive his ever-living, life-giving heavenly body, the food of angels. That is, at every Eucharist, we receive knowledge of Christ by the most direct of the five senses: taste. We receive a taste of the heavenly banquet, the eternal party foreshadowed in last week’s parable of the prodigal son, surrounded by the music and dancing of St Paul and all the saints, all the faithful tenants of the vineyard. For the Lord of the Sabbath came to bring us not misery, not anxiety, not busyness, but the joy of everlasting peace.
In the end, Dostoyevsky’s ever-busy Grand Inquisitor could not bring himself to execute Christ. Our Lord would not answer the charges against him, but in the silence, He leaned forward and kissed the old man on the lips. The Inquisitor let him free, but never changed his mind. Perhaps when our lips next touch the Body of Christ, He might change ours – that we may be joyful.