A couple months ago, on the feast of Christ the King, my oldest son tugged at my sleeve during Mass. Pointing up to the Cross, he asked, “What do the letters over Jesus’ head mean?”
I quietly spelled out the Latin: Jesus, the Nazarene, King of the Jews. “The Romans nailed that over Jesus’ head to mock him. They thought he was pretending to be the king of the world, but that he was just a nobody whom they could hang on the cross to die.”
“Oh,” James Augustine said in his particularly thoughtful way, “So, Jesus pranked the Romans.”
This was in the middle of Mass; we had just stood up for the Creed. I whispered, “What?”
“The Romans didn’t think he was a king, and made fun of him to show he wasn’t a king, but he really was a king. He pranked them.”
I put my arm around James and said, yes, the whole of Christianity has pranked the world. The world thought that everything was less than it seemed and that worldly power was everything. And Christianity says, “Ha, fooled you.” Then I went back to praying.
That’s an odd way of thinking of it, but as I reflected on what James had said, the more apt it seemed. At the least, it seemed a rather perceptive way of expressing the mystery of the Cross and the – here’s my literature professor’s word – the ironic nature of Christ’s kingship.
They whipped and stripped and beat him; they put a crown of thorns upon his head and a reedy scepter in his hands; they marched him through the streets in an unroyal procession, and they hung him on a cross to die, nailing a title above his head to say, with spit and contempt, “here’s your king.”
Part of the prank of the Cross is surely that it’s not limited to the Cross. We read the whole world wrongly if we do not read through its brute literalism to the “ironic” meaning just within, beneath, or beyond.
Everything bears its ironic twist. Not in the contemporary sense of sarcasm, where we treat everything as insincere and unserious; not in the sense, that is, of pronouncing the “meaning of the world” only in scare quotes. But in the sense that we assume a flat and easy meaning. There’s a deep and difficult one waiting for us, though, that transforms what we thought we knew as we enter more deeply into knowledge. And if we fail to look further, we fail to see the truth.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy James Joyce’s infamously difficult novel, Ulysses. Regrettably, because I have always been intrigued by Joyce’s use of myth, his parallel of the wanderings of Odysseus, the myriad-minded, cunning, and courageous comic hero, and those of Leopold Bloom, the cuckolded Dublin Jew whose grief at the loss of a daughter and insecurities were compensated only by his relish of well fried liver.
Bloom’s adulterous wife, Molly, lies abed reading trashy novels, while waiting to greet a lover in her husband’s absence. Penelope she is not, except that, in Joyce’s scheme, Penelope she is indeed.
What was Joyce doing in resetting Homer’s epic in his own squalid turn-of-the-century Dublin? In embodying Odysseus in Bloom and, as we learn, Telemachus in the young, dirty, and insouciant Stephen Daedalus? Was this all just a prank?
One of the first critics of the novel, the French writer, Valery Larbaud, delivered a lecture insisting that we must not think it a mere joke, a bit of humor, to embarrass Bloom and other modern men as “living dogs” who pale in comparison with a “dead lion” like Odysseus. Something graver, he said, was at stake; he never explained what.
Consider this moment from the novel, however, when Bloom happens to step into a church during Mass, and sees the back of the priest’s chasuble reading “I.H.S.”
He saw the priest stow the communion cup away, well in, and kneel an instant before it, showing a large grey bootsole from under the lace affair he had on. . . . Bald spot behind. Letters on his back I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned : or no : I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.
Fleshly and illiterate, but Catholic, Molly claims to know just what these coded letters mean; they are acronyms for “I have suffered” and “Iron nails ran in”! Bloom is being pranked in trusting that this seeming literalism is the whole truth; the joke is on him not because the letters mean that or just something else, but because they mean more.
The IHS codes in English the Greek letters for Jesus, which the early Christians themselves used as a code. INRI codes Pilate’s Latin, which pretended to show how much less than a king Christ was, when, in fact, Christ was more than a king, more than a Roman emperor, because he was the king of all creation.
Joyce, it is generally agreed, was an apostate (though his friend Thomas MacGreevy says they from time to time heard Mass together). But Joyce’s Ulysses has often been called a great Catholic novel, and for just this reason. What seem like mere literary games, in fact, reveal the letters of this world as bearing a foreign-tongued mystery within them.
To be Catholic is to be one who sees those letters and their hidden significance is not just a joke, or at least not the kind of joke to which we are accustomed. The world has been pranked by God; when we think we have its meaning nailed down tight and reduced to an acronym we can easily explain, God turns things about on the axle of the Cross and – Ha! – reveals something infinitely greater than we could ever have conceived on our own.
*Image: Christ on the Cross, Mary with Mary Magdelene, Saint John, and Saint Francis of Paola by Nicholas Tournier, c. 1636 [Louvre, Paris]