The Absurd Magnificence of It All

As I write, it is Good Friday, a day whose name I never quite understood as a child.  A man was crucified.  In what sense was that “good”?  Thus when I got older, I grasped immediately the paradox behind the lines from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker”:

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

When I first became a Catholic, someone asked me: “Okay, so some guy died two thousand years ago. What does that have to do with me?”  Good question. I didn’t have a good answer. But I knew that if I was serious about this “Catholic thing,” I better get one.

There are plenty of doubts that can beset a person about the claim that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God, whose death and resurrection have brought about the salvation of the world. One is simply the absurd magnificence of it.

The Creator of the entire cosmos – every star, every plant, every galaxy – the one who governs the motion of every atom, every neutrino, every quark, that God became a man at a single moment in time and died on a cross out of love for us?  We little tiny beings in a minor solar system in a minor galaxy somewhere in the vastness of space and time? This seems like balancing the fate of the entire cosmos on the head of a pin.

But then, there are days when it seems impossible not to believe in it, not because I am so filled with joy, but because, given the state of things, the meaningfulness of the world and of life seems similarly balanced on the head of that pin.

I go to daily Mass, for example, and see the people there.  They are only a few feet from me in the church, but they might as well be a million light-years away.  And yet, when I look in their faces, I see depths I cannot even begin to fathom.  I wonder about their lives: their hopes, their dreams, their sorrows and sufferings, their fear of failure and death.

At that moment, the billions upon billions of stars and galaxies seem as nothing compared to the infinite depths of each person I see: the elderly woman with her walker who has had a lifetime of experiences, loved and lost, and now struggles bravely to get up to go to communion; the older couple who, though far from possessing celebrity looks and sensuality, touch each other gently, devotedly, while they sit and listen; the teen girl with the dark black eyeliner and green hair, so different from the rest. One wonders what brings her here.  Divorced parents?  Heartbreak over a lost love?  Abuse?  Or is it just that yearning we all have for something honest, something true and beautiful, something truly good?

*

And there are so many others in need. A friend is home dying in hospice care hundreds of miles away. Parents worry about the troubles of their children. Young women hope someday for a loving spouse but search in vain. The list goes on and on.  And those are just people I know, not the millions whose lives are being upended and systematically destroyed in places like Ukraine and Afghanistan.  It’s too much. I am too small. The world continues to spin out of control, and there is little I can do.

How do people who don’t believe in God do it?  If you didn’t believe in a God who cared; who was watching out for us every moment; who understood our sorrows; who instead of turning away from them, embraced them; who loved so much that he entered into our sin, sorrow, and death in person, how would you get through the day? What would be enough to convince you of the ultimate meaningfulness of life, love, and reason?

All this humanity, all this beauty, all this suffering – and it amounts to nothing?  You wait, half-naked and alone, on a hospital bed awaiting major surgery, and wonder: “Is God somewhere in this emptiness? Does he understand my fear in this darkness?” Then, you glance at the image of the naked, tortured Lord dying on the Cross and realize, “Oh, right.”

Pope Benedict XVI once wrote that “the Bible is and continues to be the true ‘enlightenment’” of human history, “because it opened reason to God’s truth and love.” For “only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that there are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God is the Lord of all things because he is their creator, and only, therefore, can we pray to him. For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are the sustaining forces of reality.”

That rings true to me.  It is this light that brings peace, the peace Christ offered to the disciples at the Last Supper when, on the night before He was crucified, He said, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (Jn 14:27)

How is peace possible in a cosmos that seems so chaotic and uncaring, unless we can anchor ourselves fast to the love of a Creator who has become Incarnate and who showed in his Easter Resurrection that His love transcends even sin and death by taking on Himself the death we have earned for ourselves by our sins?

“No one can enter into the heavenly Jerusalem by means of contemplation,” wrote the great contemplative St. Bonaventure, “except through the blood of the Lamb as through a door.  There is no other way but through the most burning love of Christ Crucified.”

Some days, I fear that’s true. On others, it’s my only source of hope.

 

*Image: Jesus Rides a White Horse by James B. Janknegt, 2012 [Brilliant Corners Art Farm, Elgin, TX]

You may also enjoy:

St. John Paul II’s The Fullness of Life

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s A Design of Eternal Salvation

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.

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