In the Poetics of Aristotle, that wonder of brevity and wit on the art of making (poiesis), there is a clever little thing called peripety, which is a device deployed by the artist to alert his audience to any sudden or unexpected turn of events in the unfolding of a story. For instance, the awful self-blinding of Oedipus in the tragic tale told by Sophocles, that quite takes the audience by surprise, leaving it in a state of breathless horror. And yet, argues Aristotle, one could certainly see, on closer inspection, all the signs in advance, perfectly foreshadowing the action along the way.
What a pity old Aristotle hadn’t been around long enough to analyze the uses Jesus makes of peripety. It might have made a Christian of him. Particularly had he joined Jesus on the Road to Emmaus where, unpacking the scriptures, every prophecy is made plain. Aristotle, of course, having died four centuries before the coming of Christ, could not possibly know that. But in the scene in which Jesus tells the disciples that, far from going up to Jerusalem to receive the coveted crown of glory, followed by his and their expected apotheosis, only ignominy and death await him, he is putting it to very good use. Peripety, as Aristotle would say, is about to kick in, allowing the audience to witness the unforeseen event of Easter triumph.
As usual, the disciples don’t get it, evincing, once again, what utter boneheads they are. I mean, are they always this clueless? What was Christ thinking when, along that Galilean beach, he began his recruitment drive by picking them? How pathetically slim the pickings must have been that day!
But, then, neither do we get it, sunbathing on our own post-modern beach. How many of us, I wager, suddenly transported into first-century Palestine, would have turned out any better? Would we have shown greater valor than, say, Peter, whose cowardice caused him to deny Christ? Or, God forbid, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him with a kiss? We don’t get a free pass just because we were baptized long after the events of that first Holy Week. And, truth to tell, haven’t we all conspired to crucify Christ? It wasn’t only those weak and wayward apostles living at the time of Jesus who fell short of the standard he set. And who, to their eternal credit, felt the most acute and salutary shame for taking flight at the first sign of danger. “Blessed be sin,” says Bernanos, “if it teaches us shame.” One does not, after all, stop being an apostle just because one’s performance is less than, well, apostolic. If it were indeed the case that the only true followers of Christ are those who, every time, faithfully follow him to the cross, how many of us would survive the scrutiny? When the English writer Ronald Knox first became a Catholic, he was advised by his Anglican friends to reconsider on the grounds that, as a Catholic, he’d be forced to keep company with countless sinners. The prospect gave him no pause whatsoever. “In a way this is a compliment to our religion,” he rejoined. “Because it means that a Catholic does not necessarily cease to be a Catholic because he is a rogue. He knows what is right when he is doing what is wrong.”
In fact, continued Knox, it is exactly the reverse with the Protestant, who, “as a rule will give up his faith first and his morals afterward … the Protestant only feels his religion to be true as long as he goes on practicing it; the Catholic feels the truth of his religion as something independent of himself, which does not cease to be valid when he, personally, fails to live up to its precepts.”
In other words, it is never a matter of knowing that because we are such good people, we really ought to be going to church. It is entirely the opposite, in fact. That because we are so very far from being good people, that because we’re slackers of the worst sort, we absolutely ought to be going to church. How goofy those people are who, like Gandhi, disclaim membership in a church because the behavior of its members falls short of the highest possible standards. “If I had ever met one,” he once said, having in mind the perfect Christian, “I would have become one.” Quite forgetting, of course, that the moment he found such a church its perfection would certainly have been diminished by his membership in it.
Nor may we saddle the Jews with the scandal of Christ’s cross, as though it were attributable to their so-called “perfidy” that Jesus had to die. Because, just to begin with, Jesus did not have to die, there being no iron necessity dragging him off to Golgotha. The fact is, he chose to die, laying down his life with divine/human deliberation. We do God a grave injustice when we refuse his Son the courtesy of being the protagonist at his own death.
But certainly in the most proximate sense, we are all complicit in that death. Which is precisely why the lesson we must all return to bedrock to learn, is that whatever holiness we hope to possess, however high we aspire to climb the ladder of sanctity, the ascent will not be easy. Grace is never cheap and the promised glory awaiting us on the other side is not effortless. Free, yes, but only because someone else first picked up the tab.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” we read in the New Testament, “for they shall see God.” But the God whom we hope someday to see, the merest scintilla of whose radiance would put out all the lights of the Milky Way, can only be seen by those who first undergo the refining fire. “If to be warmed,” T.S. Eliot reminds us in Four Quartets, “then I must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.”
In short, it is only by our willingness to pass through the dark night of a cross that cannot be circumvented that we may find ourselves looking without shame upon the face of God. “For love to be real,” Blessed Mother Teresa warns, “it must cost, it must hurt, it must empty us of self.” And it is never too soon to get started. Nor, come to think of it, too late—unless one is already dead. (“It is too late!” cries Longfellow, the poet, lamenting the swift passage of time. But then adds: “Ah, nothing is too late / Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.”) And since, as Leon Bloy reminds us, “Christ will remain in agony until the end of time,” there may yet be time.
And so, as always, it will require the mindset of a servant; one who in looking to be first must search out the last. That at least is how Jesus sets about explaining the hidden peripeties of the gospel, showing us by his life and death how “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mt 20:28).
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Resurrección” painted by Raffaellino del Garbo in 1509.