Partial Ecstasy, Partial Horror
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure. – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”, Stave 2, partial
I sometimes wonder if people really listen when someone speaks something powerful. I remember when I was in Seminary. It was my first year, and a faculty member was offering his inaugural sermon upon being promoted to full Professor. African-American, he spoke candidly of his hatred and rage at White America. Then, he spoke candidly of moving through those emotions and thoughts, of discovering that rage not tempered by a desire for real justice only brings more destruction; that compassion, rather than hatred, destroys no one, while hatred destroys both the object of hatred and the subject who hates. He spoke of the faith that kindled the desire both to search his own and his people’s past as a ground for theological reflection while never losing site of the need to offer this vision to all. It was one of the more amazing sermons I have ever heard.
Later that day, in a class on the sociology of religion, the professor asked us our thoughts. One person in particular, for some reason, stopped listening after the first part of the sermon. Visibly upset, she refused to hear that the sermon continued on, that it spoke of the power of faith to transform fear to faith, hatred to love, and despair to hope. No matter what any of us said, it was clear the sermon touched something deep within this person’s heart.
Far too often, we find it far more convenient not to hear what people have to say. It is so easy to take something, some small part, and make of it the whole. We twist and distort words until someone has said the exact opposite of what was actually said. We hear what we want, what confirms our fears, our prejudices, our preconceived ideas; the rest is just babble, irrelevant.
So it seems to me has been done to the words of Jesus in those last days of his first life within this world he loved so much. In Mark, chapter 13, Jesus tells his disciples what the end of days will look like. It’s even called “The Little Apocalypse”. Rarely has Jesus spoken more clearly: There will be horrible things that happen, such as the sky turning red, the moon ceasing to shine at night, wars and rumors of wars, pestilence, and death. And none of these are signs of the end. Rather than destruction being a sign of the end, the faithful are called to wait in hope, and faith, for the silence and peace that emerges from the New Life offered by the Father in the Son through the Spirit.
For two thousand years, we have chosen not to hear what Jesus made so clear. Every preacher, priest, alleged and self-professed prophet has insisted that the horrors of this world are signs of the coming end. “Apocalyptic” has come to mean these tremendous events, which are in fact events of our Universe, our world, steeped in the sin Jesus would eradicate completely. While theologians have, perhaps, strove to create fine distinctions between apocalyptic and chiliastic, the fact of the matter is that most folks understand the former as the destructive wave that portends the coming end of the age, while the latter has little meaning outside rarified circles. We have chosen to ignore the plain words spoken by Jesus and preferred to focus on the fear such events – most definitely signs of no more than it being Tuesday – as presaging total destruction, with Jesus to whisk by and save the chosen few.
So, on this Lenten Journey, here I am, in Jerusalem, hearing Jesus tell his Disciples, who seem so eager to here about destruction (of the Romans) and fire from the heavens (upon the Romans) as signs the end is coming (hopefully in the next day or so, while Jesus is here in Jerusalem) and Jesus – just as with the cleansing of the Temple, meeting with the Sadducee and leaders of the Pharisees – disappoints yet again. The coming Kingdom of God will not arrive in destruction. The coming Kingdom of the God who creates, who holds all existence together in love, who has promised to redeem all that is, all that was, all that will be, and who continues to breathe new life through the Holy Spirit in to the dead bones of this world – that God no more wants to destroy the world than this God wants to sew buttons on pants. Unfortunately for those who follow on, however, we humans are far too prone to hear what we want to hear. It excites something within us, to hear of destruction coming, especially upon those we have deemed unworthy, unsaved, outside the bounds of God’s grace. We accept our own righteousness, while so easily consigning to oblivion (and worse) those we have declared unrighteous.
I hear Jesus’s words, and I wonder how this powerful message of hope, of life, of a Father who cares so much for all that he has created that he will not abandon it to destruction has become the exact opposite. This offer of peace, of love, of hope has become a warning filled with terror and fear, with the teller the hero of this epic tale of horror and the rescue of a tattered remnant. We are so wedded to dividing, to fear of damnation, to the idea that there are just some who are outside the bounds of God’s grace, we refuse to hear this message of love, of consolation in the face of the horror of living in this world. We are called to wait with faith, because in the events to come we have been offered the first glimpse of what the Kingdom really looks like. We are not to surrender to fear because among the gifts offered to us is peace in the face of all the terrors of this world. The Kingdom will not come in glory; neither will it come through destruction. It will come in peace and justice and love, and we who are bearers of the Good News are to let the world know this is the Kingdom of our God.
So I sigh a prayer for all those living in fear, especially a fear baptized as Christian. This is especially important to remember as we move through this most turbulent week. We must remember, as Jesus approached what he had to know was the end, he was afraid; he did not allow that fear to determine whether or how he would follow the Will of the One he called his Father. Neither are we, who are always facing so much to stir fear to freeze our hearts, to allow it to overpower the Word of Grace and Peace we have from the Son, in the name of the Father, through the Spirit. I cannot pretend I do not know the full story. I cannot pretend I have not heard the cry of Divine, Fatherly abandonment that tears apart the cosmos, ripped from Jesus’s very soul as he hangs there, forgotten and alone, just another failed Messiah dying on a Roman cross. Yet, we are consoled that all that is, in its partial ecstasy and partial horror, is taken up in to the Divine Life and redeemed, made whole and new, a source not of fear and separation, but of hope and peace, the grand gathering in when all shall kneel and proclaim this bloody dying form is the Lord of all.