When Evening is Dawn

Behold the world’s man. He is pallid and sullen. Like some stepson told to zip his coat, an action is required of him. Emperor Claudius mandating a politician’s decision to quell a disturbance in a minority quarter of the city. The established marginals have insured that they have no king but Caesar. A faction of their own, they claim, has another, some “Chrestus”.[1] And what was necessary to happen did occur–the two became one flesh and conspired against the faction. These were those who followed a new narrative, a revelation, an epiphany, an incarnation. If Publius Scipio, Pontifex Maximus, slaughtered a rival for “lightly disturbing the status of the republic,”[2] there could exist not even an inch for those who would take every mile.

A sanction was necessarily issued–the faction, being smaller and less-understood, would be expelled from the city; the established would refrain from public meetings for a time.[3] Peace is restored and even heightened–the satisfaction in expelling a brother from the garden, the looks across fires, the self-assurance, the justification after the last lamp has gone out. The city at rest.

With their bags and memories, the banished cousins depart for unknown cities, placing hope in the world to come. Some go to Corinth and eat with the Apostle. Others starve then freeze in the forests of Gaul. They are us. The gates of hell could not prevail. Spangled, intractably illuminating the Empire, no one notices, at first, that the narrative had shifted.

But when had the change occurred? Simone Weil says, “Every order which transcends another can only be introduced into it under the form of something infinitely small.”[4] And we set our eyes on the crucifixion–the centurion proclaiming, “This man truly was the son of God.” Matthew figures it was because of the earthquake. But this is all too human. Divinity was reported by Mark, who said it was in seeing the way Jesus died. And on the day the Christ expired, to be sure, birds nested in the sequoias, Romans made their languid walks to the baths, bison grazed in ignorant grasslands. The magi, too, long vanished into the whirlwind from which they came. Only a few who were in proximity knew that the old world had passed. The cross–the final act in an unfolding event, the first in yet another.

What was then necessary for us to receive this story remains the same down through the ages. A community. The gathering of those with eyes to apprehend the figure of the divine one crucified high and lifted up, ears to comprehend the proclamation spoken by Peter and the Roman. A community whose own establishment was the event itself–and it was only here that it did take place. For the picture is the thing, and it was seen and remembered only in the community.

The Apostle, the one who had been blinded by the figure but had heard its voice, reminds the brethren that he himself merely holds a crimson thread of tradition stretching backwards to that ultimate meal. And he recites the master’s words as he has thus received them: “Take, eat, this is my body” and all the rest.[5] If you are willing to consider it, the ritual was practiced long before the words were written down. And likely it was this very thing, the eating of flesh and drinking of blood, which sets in motion the expulsion of the faction from Claudius’ city. They had come to their own, but they received them not.

The ritual, in form so old and meaning so new, was equally scandalous to the men of the East as to those from the West–a freakish appendage upon a golden calf. What violence was done when the members of this sect gathered in the dark? What mysteries were maintained, what meanings stood behind their crude symbols? What image do they see with their eyes? What secrets do they hear with their ears? Why do they rise from ashes, and every man of them welcome death?

In these birth pangs, the light of the nations was continually brought forth. No one but the community knew what was happening. A new age and a new covenant–the opening of the soil and a mustard plant sprouting. In the annuls of secular history, we discover not an abstracted peasant sage from Palestine; there is only “Chrestus” or Christ as the Christians called him. And he was only that inside of the same community in which he is still found, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”.

And they feed on Light. Like new wine in old wineskins, they subvert the empire not as a parasite, but as a new creature. In hindsight, some claimed that they spoiled the old peace. They revealed things hidden from the foundation of the world–and hung their bodies on the life of the world to come. The old world collapsed like some cordless drape before a baffled audience, the actors swimming in the folds.

And we, brothers and sisters of these heroic pathfinders, are yet again expelled. For words can no longer be uttered against the world’s misguided narrative–against the false peace of emperors and scapegoats. Depletion becomes us, expulsion yet again. Driven to deserts to spark scullery fires, petitions of true definitions, meanings for words. And we do not forget in the dark what we learned in the light. For it is we who proclaimed justice for the poor, mercy for the brokenhearted, cups of water for the thirsty. And like Claudius, many mistook the occident for the orient, the setting for the rising of the sun. “It is possible to stay alive with a great sunset,” said the teacher.[6] But night has already fallen. It is indeed the dawn.

[1] Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 25.

[2] Cicero, In Catilinam I, 3.

[3] Acts 18:2; Dio Cassius, Roman History, 60.6.6; and Orosius, Historiae Adversum Paganos, 7.6.15.

[4] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), XX.

[5] 1 Cor. 11:24

[6] Ernst Troeltsch as quoted in, Wilhelm Pauck, Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 92. 

Originally published in Faith and Culture Magazine, Dec. 18, 2018