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Riding the Waves of History

This is a special religious season. The Western Easter Octave ended Sunday, which was also Eastern Orthodox Easter. The Jewish Passover closed Saturday, in the midst of the Islamic month of prayer and fasting, Ramadan. Sadly – though predictably – there was no Easter truce, as Pope Francis requested, in the assault on Ukraine, which Russians (and some misguided Westerners) believe is a “holy” war to defend the True Faith from Western decadence and apostasy.

Russia didn’t pause the killing and destruction, as true Christian warriors have in the past on Christian feasts; beneath the religious rationalization lies the crudest hypocrisy.

“Holy wars” have existed, true holy wars, in which courageous fighting men have indeed served a sacred cause – the Crusades, for instance, despite their sometimes-gross imperfections. But we now mostly have unholy wars, of various kinds, because our spiritual level is much lower than in the past.

I’ve been in Jerusalem until today (Rome before that) and woke up on Good Friday to the flash bangs and rubber bullets being fired across the way on the Temple Mount. Israeli Defense Forces succeeded in maintaining relative calm as extremist Jews and Muslims deliberately tried to provoke one another into some sort of decisive battle.

But calm meant 150 injured and 600 arrested. Given the tensions on all sides, it could have been worse. Much worse. Days later, walking the Via Dolorosa, the Stations that Christ passed on the way to Calvary, there were still disturbances near the place where He was scourged, the First Station – opposite the Muslim entrance to the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

The Holy Land – which I hadn’t visited for twenty years – changes your whole perspective on Old and New Testaments – and basically everything. It’s a world of walking distances. Within just a few square miles, a small number of people, who bulked large in spiritual terms, experienced and did things that have altered the lives of billions, changed the course of history and, in some respects, even the face of nature.

The Holy Land helps you see that God had to have been at work in all this, because, humanly speaking, the sheer global extent of Judaism and Christianity today would otherwise make no rational sense. No one in the first century A.D., for example, would have predicted that the tiny offshoot (Christians) of a minor Eastern Mediterranean people (Jews), would even exist 2000 years later – let alone that it would be the largest religious group on the planet, about one-third of the 8 billion now alive.

*

By comparison, many great worldly empires disappeared over the same period despite frequent and energetic applications of violence. Rome, for example, the most powerful empire in the world around the time of Christ, destroyed the Temple when Jews rebelled, and then laid siege to the last remaining Jewish holdouts at Masada [1] (a must-visit), who – strangely for Jewish believers – chose suicide over submission, slavery, and abuse.

Pre-Constantinian Rome also tried to obliterate memory of the Crucifixion by building a temple to Venus over Golgotha, and another temple to Zeus over the site of Christ’s tomb. (A brief aside: It’s not too large a leap to see something similar in how our politicians and cultural elites have been trying to replace Christian self-sacrificial love with pagan identity-defining “sex” (Venus). And the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection with the limp political idolatries of the Great Reset.)

When Islam later swept into Jerusalem, it obliterated the basilica and gardens Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, had built to replace the pagan impositions. And the Muslims went further – taking Jesus’ tomb down to the bedrock.

Thanks to the Crusaders who recovered the Holy Land, though only briefly, a large medieval-style cathedral (with centuries of modifications) from the 11th century now stands over the sites of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Later Muslim leaders wisely left it alone.

All this history cannot help but make even ahistorical Americans reflect. Many “battles” must be fought these days too, of course, with appropriate political, educational, and spiritual weapons. Christian culture is slipping, and America with it, for anyone with eyes to see. We’ve lately been making advances, if not actually winning, against trans propaganda and abortion in particular. But even more, many of us are now “woke” enough in our own way to see that our governments have made themselves into something resembling a totalitarian, quasi-religious force in education and medicine across the West. That assault must be resisted – and reversed.

But in both the short and long run, what counts is not so much victory but continuing the struggle. In historical perspectives such as you see in the Holy Land, even splendid failures – individuals and movements who seem defeated and obliterated, like the early martyrs – triumph in the long run because they are in tune with the truths of this world and the next: Jesus Christ. Unsuspected victories, large and small, will come over time, even though we can’t see how and are tempted to give up.

But if Pilate and the Sanhedrin, the Roman Empire and militant Islam, and the long passage of time have failed to stamp out the living faith, there’s great reason for hope. Our would-be betters are deluding themselves in arrogant talk about being on the “right side of history.”

The passing of the works and pomps of this world used to bulk large in Christian understanding. Sadly now, even many Christians think largely in terms of the 24-news-cycle. But there are still other perspectives rooted in the real human story .

Rudyard Kipling is generally dismissed these days (when he’s even known) as a colonialist, white supremacist, English jingoist. But in one of his best-known poems, “Recessional [2],” written while the British were at their imperial heights, he could remind them:

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

 

*Image: Crusader knight praying, c; 1200-1250 from the Westminster Psalter [British Library, MS Royal 2 A XXII]

You may also enjoy:

Casey Chalk’s Catholicism and the Whole Truth [3]

Stephen P. White’s What Won’t We Tolerate? [4]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.