Category Archives: Holy Days

Jekyll and Jesus: Thoughts About Lent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those stories with a dramatic twist that most people already know before reading it. I hope that the original readers of the story were shocked by it, but very few people have been since. Probably a lot of people could give their opinion on Robert Louis Stevenson’s characterization of human nature without reading the story. I could have.

Regardless, the story still has a gothic horror quality. You might know how it will end, but the creepiness remains. Jekyll believes he’s found a way to separate his good impulses from his evil ones. With this ability, his real self will not be corrupted by the evil impulses that sometimes trouble him. Of course, he tragically fails.

Jekyll’s intentions are good to some extent–he wants to truly be the fine, upstanding person everyone thinks he is. But if I were to name a tragic flaw for Jekyll, it might almost be “impatience.” Jekyll wants to be good–now. So he takes what he thinks is the easy way out. And he destroys himself.

Why bother observing forty days of Lent? Well, maybe because we’re all a bit like Dr. Jekyll. We  believe we have a sin problem. We even want to do something about it. The problem is–we want it now.

Fortunately, none of us are capable of splitting our personalities. We are, however, capable of becoming impatient with ourselves, or, worse, with God. Why, we groan, can’t we just make a commitment or something and end the struggle?

The Lent season is about our struggle with sin. It is also about the life and death of Jesus Christ. And if there is one thing that we can learn from the life of Jesus Christ, it is that he was in for the long haul. No quick trip to earth, quick death, and quick resurrection. No. He spent about thirty years living in a particularly narrow-minded hometown, and the three years after that were hardly pleasant. His death may have been “quick” for a crucifixion, but crucifixions were never quick. And he didn’t rise again until three days later.

The author of Hebrews writes that Jesus can serve as our high priest precisely because he understands our struggles. His temptation in the wilderness was a particularly intense struggle, but it was not his only struggle. He was human. When death drew near, his instinct was to run away. Unlike us, he never sinned. But his temptations were more severe than most of ours. I expect he longed for them to be over with. So do we.

Jesus did not try to split his personality so that only one side could suffer temptation. Instead, he persevered. Dr. Jekyll wanted a way to avoid the battle within himself. Jesus faced his temptations head on.

To some extent, Lent is about patience. Easter seems a long way off (especially if you’re giving up something). Lent is also about courage–the courage to fight a battle with sin, although that battle seems unending. Yet there will be an end.

We await the Resurrection.


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The Greatest of Good Catastrophes

Although Aristotle criticized its use, Horace was the first to coin a term for this somewhat unfortunate dramatic device–the deus ex machina (“god out of the machine”). Even without the Latin term, however, Aristotle made his opinion quite clear. Apparently he had gotten tired of Euripedes’ plots (Euripedes, the Greek dramatist, used the deus ex machina to resolve over half of his plays). Aristotle, while granting Euripedes some grace for his skillfulness in using this dramatic device, disagreed that it was appropriate in tragic drama. He held that the solution to a drama’s conflict should come from plot elements already at work, not elements introduced when all other hopes have failed. “There should be nothing improbable,” Aristotle argued, “in the incidents; otherwise it should be outside the tragedy.”

Last spring I was able to witness a first-hand example of what Aristotle meant when I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. When the statue of the (supposedly dead) Hermione came to life–I left the play rather bewildered. I enjoy Shakespeare, but such an abruptly happy ending was more than a little disconcerting.

“Disconcerted” would be one way to describe Christ’s followers on the morning of the Resurrection. (I prefer the more descriptive, if less sophisticated, term “running around like chickens with their heads cut off.” Read all four gospel accounts of the Resurrection in the same sitting, and you’ll see what I mean.) If I did not believe the truth of the gospel narratives, I would be inclined to consider the Resurrection as yet another deus ex machina. Coming back from the dead? Really?

J.R.R. Tolkien would have strongly disagreed with labeling the Resurrection as a deus ex machina, however. He had a different term for it, which he introduces in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”eucatastrophe (from the Greek, meaning “good catastrophe”). He described it this way:

“It is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

For Tolkien, all of the higher fairy stories include eucatastrophic moments–moments when a likely doom is averted, not by a “god” being swung onstage by a crane (as in Greek drama), but by elements already at work in the story. Perhaps the most familiar example of eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s own writing is the moment in The Lord of the Rings when Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and falls into Mount Doom. Gollum has been mentioned in the story nearly since the beginning; he has betrayed Frodo before, and we expect him to return for Frodo again. What we don’t necessarily expect is that he will provide the solution to Frodo’s collapsed willpower on Mount Doom. Gollum is no deus ex machina, but his actions on Mount Doom are certainly a eucatastrophe–an unexpected turning of the story for the good of all (excluding Sauron and friends) involved.

Tolkien considered the Incarnation to be a moment when myth became fact in the person of Jesus Christ. The stories many peoples had told of a god who came to earth, lived, and died suddenly became real. Being real, our accounts of the Incarnation don’t read like myth, as C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity. They are “true myth,” as Tolkien and Lewis both conceived of it: and they have a eucatastrophic moment all their own, when hints of what might be suddenly became real in the Resurrection.

Christ’s Resurrection is hinted at as far back as Genesis. “He shall bruise your head,” God told the serpent, “and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV). The promised “offspring of the woman” would fatally crush the serpent, while the serpent’s attack on him, while painful, would not be fatal. David prophesied further of the Resurrection: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (ESV). Jesus repeatedly told His disciples, among others, that He would be killed, but would rise again after three days. No one, it seems, took Him seriously, even though they saw the power He had over death, particularly in the raising of Lazarus.

Christ’s Resurrection was no deus ex machina. Prophesied long beforehand, it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention to His statements and Old Testament writings that His death and Resurrection had been intended from the beginning. Christ’s response to the depression of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus indicates His frustration with their lack of understanding: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (ESV).

Christ’s Resurrection should not have been unexpected; yet it was. In any case, Christ’s Resurrection was certainly a turn of story that almost never happens–a eucatastrophe of the best kind. It ensured our salvation. “And if Christ has not been raised,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (ESV).

Thank God for the Resurrection, the greatest of all good catastrophes.

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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Devotional, Holy Days


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In writing “Beneath Thy Cross,” Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) describes her struggle to have a proper emotional response to the Crucifixion.

Rossetti was not a stoic by any definition. Her poetry is highly emotional, after the lyric style of the Romantics. She often suffered from emotional struggles: at 14, with her father dying of tuberculosis and her mother struggling to keep the Rossettis out of poverty, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown, followed by periods of depression that continued at intervals throughout her life. She certainly knew what it meant to feel deeply.

Rossetti’s struggle for a proper emotional response to the Crucifixion was not caused by a lack of religious devotion, either. During her family’s struggles when Rossetti was a teenager, she became increasingly interested in Christianity, particularly in its High Anglican form. She later became engaged to a painter named James Collinson. Collinson, originally a Catholic, had converted to Anglicanism in hopes of marrying Rossetti, who had happily agreed to the prospect. Collinson later struggled with guilt over his decision, however, and he returned to the Catholic Church. Despite Rossetti’s Italian background and High Church preferences, she could not conscience the match, and so she and Collinson went their separate ways. Two other offers of marriage followed, at least one of which Rossetti declined for religious reasons. Meanwhile, as Rossetti worried over the waywardness of her poet brother Dante, she involved herself at the St. Mary Magdelene “house of charity,” a safe house for women attempting to leave prostitution.

Perhaps she was thinking of Mary Magdelene in particular as she wrote, “Not so those women loved/
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee.” Surely Mary’s emotions must have been great as she watched her Teacher, the man who had saved her from a life of demon possession, suffer and die.

Emotions, however, fade with time. Certainly Mary’s initial thoughts at the scene of the crucifixion were not the same as her thoughts after realizing it was Jesus speaking to her in the garden. As she lived longer, watching the church struggle through periods of persectution, corruption, and disharmony, she would have felt many different emotions. But while her intense distress at the scene of the crucifixion eventually changed into a sorrowful memory, her devotion–from all we can tell–deepened.

Like Rossetti, Thomas à Kempis struggled with feeling a lack of emotion in his spiritual life. A man who intensely valued his relationship with Christ, he found his “dry” periods to be discouraging. But he came to understand that emotions change–that, as we trust God for our daily bread, we must also trust him to fill our needs where the spiritual and emotional worlds meet. Using the persona of Christ, he wrote in his Imitation:

“My child, do not trust in your present feeling, for it will soon give way to another. As long as you live you will be subject to changeableness in spite of yourself…. But the man who is wise and whose spirit is well instructed stands superior to these changes. He pays no attention to what he feels in himself or from what quarter the wind of fickleness blows, so long as the whole intention of his mind is conducive to his proper and desired end. For thus he can stand undivided, unchanged, and unshaken, with the singleness of his intention directed unwaveringly toward Me, even in the midst of so many changing events. And the purer this singleness of intention is, with so much the more constancy does he pass through many storms.”

This Lent has been a long one, and during Lent I usually find that, however good my intentions on Ash Wednesday, by the time Holy Week comes my mind seems to be everywhere but on Christ. My good intentions to relive His life and death seem unable to last more than a week. And so I renew the “singleness of my intention,” and thank Christ for His unfathomable sacrifice.

When Emotions Fail

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Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Devotional, Holy Days


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Thoughts on Holy Thursday

Sidney Lanier’s “Ballad of the Trees and the Master” is among my favorite poems, telling the story of Holy Thursday from a rather different point of view.

Christ has come from an evening spent with his disciples–teaching them, rebuking them, kneeling to wash their filthy feet. He stops at the entrance to the garden, where he leaves eight of them. He moves into the ancient olive trees, with three disciples trailing behind him, stifling yawns.

“Sit here,” he says. “I’m going a little further to pray.”

They plop down beside an olive tree. He goes farther into the darkness, kneels, and whispers. “Father?”

Some time later, he returns. Despite the darkness, he has no trouble finding the three: he can find them by their snores. After several years with them, he knows those snores very well.

He steps on a twig. It cracks loudly, and Peter jolts up. He nudges the others, and they sit slowly, trying unsuccessfully to hide their yawns.

Christ only shakes his head. “You couldn’t watch for even an hour with me?”

They are embarrassed, but as soon as he is gone, Peter decides that God does not mind people who pray while lying down. Soon snores are again disturbing the quiet of Gethsemane.

Christ, burdened with the thought of what is coming–of the one disciple not in Gethsemane–stumbles to his knees. “Father–”

A light wind blows through the garden, and a leaf alights on Christ’s face. The trees, it seems, have not forgotten just who it is praying among them.

Lanier’s poem describes how the trees comfort Christ, while men kill him–ironically, on a tree.

Some years after that night in Gethsemane, the apostle Paul would write, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (ESV).”

It seems that the trees, at least, remember the first fire breathed into them by their Creator.

The rest of us, however, need to be reminded. Like Peter, we have a tendency to fall asleep, forgetting everything–that, long ago, we lost a part of ourselves; and that Christ is working even now to make us whole again.

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:13, ESV)

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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in Devotional, Holy Days


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