“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” ∼ Oscar Wilde
Let me tell you about my least favorite scripture passage. Perhaps it is yours, too, so I needn’t be overly shy about sharing it with you. In fact, I rather suspect we’re in this together, which means, dear reader, we exhibit many of the same symptoms. Which are? Try fear and weakness for starters.
The passage I have in mind appears in the Letter to the Hebrews—chapter 12, verse 4—and every time I hear it read aloud at Mass it stops me dead in my tracks.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.
Now why should that give me pause? Give anyone pause, for that matter? Because, like the seasoned cynicism of Oscar Wilde, whenever temptation strikes—oh, every half-minute or so—one’s first impulse is simply to give in and, poof, it all goes magically away. In other words, far from resisting to the point of shedding anything, the recommended practice is never to resist at all, and so one goes blithely along the road to complete moral and spiritual ruin.
Of course, that rather pulls the plug on any prospect of actually having to live the Christian life. I mean, why bother? What is the the point of belonging to something that urges not just resistance to sin, but a positive reversal of one’s entire life in the direction of holiness and virtue, if you’re not prepared to go the distance? To behave, as a character in a Graham Greene novel once put it, as though “the whole silly bag of tricks” were true? Not to settle for at least that much is nothing more than humbuggery.
So maybe we’d better start with something a bit more heroic than, say, the Oscar Option (or call it the Wilde Way). But before leaving it behind, let’s at least acknowledge its appeal. There is, after all, an undeniable attraction attaching itself to the illicit that, in the disordered imagination certainly, renders the act irresistible. So many alluring entrapments against which virtue cannot (or so it sometimes seems) compete—these threats are real enough, and the wounds they inflict are often enough mortal. Why else does the Church speak warningly of the “glamour of evil,” if not for the seeming pallor surrounding the practice of virtue? And while it is all snare and delusion, our lives are scarcely unaffected by its myriad seductions. The Old Guy, in other words, who goes about as a roaring lion in search of souls to devour, can be an exceedingly clever liar.
Which means, of course, that to the extent we buy into his lies, dissipating our moral capital on emptiness and sin, we sink inexorably into the sludge. Until, at last, we leave the Precincts of Felicity far behind us. “Sin,” as Frank Sheed shrewdly observes in Theology and Sanity, “is always a following of the line of least resistance, towards the deficiency of life: there is less of a man after sin. It is a going with the stream of one’s own inclination. But it takes no vitality to go with the stream: a dead dog can do it.”
Who wants to be a dead dog? So, where does that leave us? I mean those more or less committed Christians who, while they genuinely want to do the right thing, wonder why it has got to come at the cost of shedding their own blood. Is that so unreasonable? Why shouldn’t it be possible to run the bloody race without always having to get impaled along the way?
There are two reasons why. One, because we live in a fallen world where nothing good will ever get done without some blood being shed. Yeats certainly nailed it when he said, “for nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.” Or Chesterton, for that matter. “What’s wrong with the world?” he asked. The answer was quite simple: “I am.” To uproot all those weeds in the garden of vice will require considerable digging; mere cosmetic applications will not do. And, two, because the founder of the Christian religion freely chose to bleed all over the place. It’s what love does. How then can we be expected to imitate his life, evince something of the quality of his love, if we refuse to take up the same cross on which he himself was nailed?
There is, I am saying, a necessary logic implicit in the very event of our baptism; that in our conformity to Christ, we move inescapably in the direction of death, our death. We die with Christ and so we are buried with him. Our identity may only be found, therefore, in the figure of the Pierced and Crucified God, enjoining us to hang with him upon the same Cross. Isn’t that the reason we are to regard martyrdom as really the most normal and obvious implication of what it means to be a Christian? St. Thomas tells us that, “of all virtuous acts, blood witness is the greatest proof of the perfection of love” (ST 2.2.30c). Are we not called upon to love? When Jesus tells his disciples that no servant can be greater than his master, and that in persecuting him they will surely persecute them, he is talking to us. He promises us nothing that he did not himself first embrace: suffering, dereliction, and death. What else can it mean to put God first but that, in choosing to stand before his Cross, we choose to die upon it as well?
Yes, but surely Christ did all that so that none of us need do it. Isn’t that right? His was the perfect sacrifice and there is nothing we can add to it. Whatever Paul had in mind in suggesting that Christ somehow left things incomplete in order that we might fill them with our own sufferings, can hardly be other than hyperbole. What more can God expect of us when he’s already sent his Son to accomplish everything? I mean, besides thanking him for it. But is that really enough? Isn’t there something more God would have us do, something he wants to see in us so that the sign of our salvation may be complete? Visible, indeed, to others? In a little gem of a book entitled The Moment of Christian Witness, written in the year following the end of the Council (1966), when the tide of optimism was still running pretty high, Hans Urs von Balthasar brought us bluntly back to earth with the most salutary of reminders, to wit, the distinctively Christian element in Christianity, which no amount of happy talk can overcome.
What is it that remains uniquely, even scandalously, particular about the Christian proposal? Let that be the witness of your life. “If you say to George Bernanos, ‘Come along with me. It’s the Ernstfall—the crucial moment in Christian existence,’ the old grumbler will get up out of his armchair without so much as raising an eyebrow and follow you like a lamb.” But who wants to be like Bernanos any more? And what in the name of heaven is an Ernstfall anyway? For people for whom the whole point of being Christian is to see how much can be safely stripped away so as not to offend the world (“in order not to have to believe anything at all any longer,” says Balthasar) the Ernstfall arouses no interest whatsoever.
But God is interested. And sooner or later we’ll all have to reckon with him. “God does not content himself with our heartfelt thanks,” Balthasar reminds us. “He wants to be able to recognize his own Son in Christian men and women. However far they may fall short of the ideal of Christ … they must in principle have given their assent to the love by which they have been redeemed.”
What else can that mean but that in order for me, for you, to remain faithful to Christ, we have simply got to allow ourselves to be killed for Christ. Isn’t that the truth by which we are to measure everything? Because he first died for me, I can and must be willing to die for him? “The truth that provides the yardstick for faith,” says Balthasar, “is God’s willingness to die for the world he loves, for mankind, and for me as an individual.” It is no less than that love which
became manifest in the dark night of Christ’s crucifixion. Every source of grace—faith, love, and hope—springs from this night. Everything that I am (insofar as I am anything more on this earth than a fugitive figure without hope, all of whose illusions are rendered worthless by death), I am solely by virtue of Christ’s death, which opens up to me the possibility of fulfillment in God. I blossom on the grave of God who died for me. I sink my roots deep into the nourishing soil of his flesh and blood. The love that I draw in faith from this soil can be of no other kind than the love of one who is buried.
What a captivating image that is … to blossom on the grave of God. What else have we got but the Ernstfall? It is the only criterion in town, “the best criterion,” adds Balthasar, “because it forces us to face the Christian truth that our readiness to die for Christ is the only adequate response we can make to his willing sacrifice of himself out of love for us.”
What a staggering thought it is. And to think that he did it all while we were yet sinners. Welcome to the Ernstfall everyone.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” painted by Caravaggio.