Ashes to Ashes: Is the Jig Up?

When I was small, back in the 1940s, there was a lovely weekly magazine called the Saturday Evening Post. It was the publication that ran all of those Norman Rockwell covers that had the art critics breaking out in pustules and carbuncles. They grimly dismissed Rockwell’s entire oeuvre as insupportably sentimental—a little grandmother, say, at a gingham café table with her skinny-necked, jug-eared grandson, folding their hands and bowing humbly, saying grace over their Thanksgiving blue-plate special. What brought the lump to your throat was the question of where the old family farmhouse might be, all full of cousins and aunts, and the table laden with apples, pumpkin pies, mince pies, cranberry sauce, and a great turkey.

There was lots of drollery in the Post, and I remember one article that was canvassing (jocularly) various crises in the world. Among other items, the author reported that a hen in Kansas had laid an egg with the motto “The Jig is Up” inscribed on it. Clearly, apocalypse was imminent.

This prophetic bird had merely delivered the latest in an ancient lineage of sibylline and melancholy messages. Doom has lurked and leered at us from behind every bush since the day after the expulsion from Eden. If it wasn’t the Amalekites, it was the Hittites. If it wasn’t the Assyrians, it was the Chaldaeans. Philip of Macedon, the Caesars, the Goths (Ostro- or Visi-), the Saxons harrying the poor Celts with fire and sword in the fifth century, and so on and so on. Has any epoch ever had the luxury of settling down in bucolic serenity? Some threat seems always to have been gathering itself on the borders.

In our own epoch we have seen the Kaiser and then the Fuhrer. Pearl Harbor. Ho Chi Minh. The Ayatollah. Osama. Some of these latter, who often appeared to be kindling only local brushfires, seemed to have a disquieting way, sooner or later, of threatening global conflagration. Everyone has to take sides. Allies shift and shuffle like the shards of glass in a kaleidoscope. Heaven itself only knows where things are headed as this column is being written.

But our hen, were she to re-lay such a cryptic egg now, might well have her beady eye on things much closer to our own shores—indeed, within the homeland, despite all of the security gauntlets through which we must all jump now (e.g., I find myself in my stocking feet in airports). The “jig” might well refer to such seismic technological and moral waves as stem-cell harvesting (are these little bits of tissue people?); cloning (the English Parliament voted to permit human cloning last summer on the very heels of disheartening reports that cloned sheep have an unhappy way of aging almost immediately, so that you get a lamb exhibiting all the debilities of a valetudinarian mutton); bishops undertaking to redraw the moral chart of the universe so that sodomy shifts from the taboo to the virtue column; and “marriage” becomes a word impossible to define. Teenage argot now speaks insouciantly of “hooking up” (the old word was “fornication”), and discourse collapses. When was the last time you heard any talk show or political speech which exhibited a cogent line of systematic argument that actually affected the listeners’ categories?

But a new columnist can’t push out from shore with a mere jeremiad. The jig won’t really be up until “the day and the hour” arrive when the Master of the House suddenly returns to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and all nations. The dominical and apostolic word here is “Awake!” Blessed is that servant whom, when his Lord returns, will be found watching.

  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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