Complacency, Abandonment, And The Violence That Precedes Grace

Originally posted at Patheos on March 28, 2013.
“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.” -- Flannery O'Connor

I stumbled across that O'Connor quote earlier this week while searching for ways to commemorate her birthday. I've seen it before, and I've always loved it -- in no small part because it significantly influenced my appreciation for the darkness so often present in modern film. But up until now, I've limited its application to the relatively narrow realm of Cinematic and Literary Art.

Yesterday, however, as I reflected on the strange silence of the past few days, I realized how well it could be applied to a vastly more meaningful moment of violence -- that of Our Lord's death on Calvary, the moment that gives all grace its redemptive power. And with that realization came a deeper recognition of why Holy Week is such an important liturgical and spiritual time for me.

Her words stung. They are a critique of our relativistic, misshapen Modernity, so they do not -- I hope -- apply to me in the same way or with the same closeness as they do those against whom she (primarily) wields them. But they fit none the less, and that stung me.

I know He died for me on that brutal gibbet, and I speak those words comfortably and regularly. But I don't feel them; not deeply, and not enough. I haven't forgotten that Christ died, nor have I lost track of the role that act of violence plays in all subsequent "intrusions of grace." But I grow inured to the brutality and painfulness underlying that reality.

As a cradle Catholic raised by devout parents, the omnipresence of crucifixes in my childhood home was a great blessing. But like many such blessings, it can grow inconsequential through its very ubiquity, if one is not careful. For Christ's contemporaries, nothing could produce more horror and disdain than the cross. For me, calloused by familiarity, it is little more than my Catholic Carrying Card -- a sign of my religious affiliations rather than a reminder of my savior's humanity and His very real sacrifice.

Even the Mass -- constant reenactment of that paradigmatic Good Friday sacrifice -- grows less significant if I fail in my efforts to recall His painful passion and His poured-out life. An unbloody sacrifice that allows me to lose track of the blood that was spilled for my very sake. The signs of Christ's suffering are constantly around me, but their very omnipresence has deadened me to their power. Familiarity has not bred contempt, but complacency, and I'm not sure which is worse. For me, Ordinary Time is as much a self-recriminatory reality as it is a liturgical descriptor. Like Flannery O'Connor says, I have lost an understanding of grace's costs -- not because I no longer believe, but because belief grows too easy, too painless.

Thank God for Holy Week.

These next few days are more than just the ritualized reminder of past events -- more than just the concentrated, dramatic account of Christ's final hours. For me, they are an actual, physical participation in His suffering. Small, more psychological and spiritual than physical, and entirely unbloody, yes. But real. And for that reason, so very, very important.

The strange calm that blooms between Palm Sunday and the Triduum is quietly unsettling. But for as long as I can remember, the moment I first begin to feel the pangs of Holy Week has always been the same: the crotalus' harsh cry at consecration on Holy Thursday. Rather than greeting His arrival with the gentle peal of bells, we signal his presence with abrupt and harsh clamoring -- a sign of the harsh and abrupt reality of the sacrifice that this moment recalls, and a shatterer of my comfortable complacency.

Minutes later, the starkness is emphasized once again during the procession to the Altar of Repose. In our parish, that procession is one we watch, rather than one in which we actively participate. But even as the servers wind their way through the church, I feel that He is displaced. It's not that He's gone altogether; the altar of repose is mere yards from the tabernacle. But he's not "in the right place" -- just as the clapper was not the right sound minutes earlier -- and that wrongness, that disjointedness aches.

As the acolytes strip the main altar of its finery, slowly divesting us of our familiar trappings, one of them recites the opening verses of Psalm 22. He speaks David's somber words slowly and quietly, and the lights in the building are gradually extinguished, leaving the church in near-total darkness, Much as I imagine it would have been for the world, cast into darkness and despair on that first First Friday, the displacement of our beloved creator is accompanied by a sensory and emotional depravation.

I am a worm, and no man.

On Good Friday, as the three o'clock hour draws near, the lightheadedness that marks me as one embarrassingly unused to fasting gives the afternoon a strangely surreal feeling. Again, the bareness of the altar, the sparseness of the liturgy, the quiet reticence of a congregation usually so full of energy -- all contribute to the very real ache of His absence. Paired with the lengthy recounting of St. John's Passion, the relentless drum-beat of the Orationes Sollemnes, and the entire congregation's public embracing of the Cross -- which looks anything but ordinary to me now -- and the feelings of wrongness, of aloneness despite the crowds, of being utterly bereft and stretched thin grow overwhelming.

Even the darkness of Holy Saturday's Vigil, looking so clearly ahead to the stone being rolled from His tomb, reminds me of the depravation of Thursday and the relentlessness of Friday. The account of Salvation History that comes into view as we work our way through the readings -- one of my favorite liturgical sequences of the year -- reminds me of His absence, of my own selfish impatience , and of Mankind's relentless reinforcement of its profound unworthiness. So caught up am I in the waiting that the joyful arrival -- the overwhelming brightness of the light and endlessly chiming bells that greet the beloved Gloria -- is almost too much to bear. But that moment, made possible only through the rigors of the Triduum itself, is a welcome jolt, rousing me from the easy complacency of my Ordinary, and calling me once again to follow in His footsteps.

Thank God for Holy Week. Without it, I could easily forget just how radical Christ's Incarnation was, how painful and unjust His passion and death, and how profoundly undeserving of His sacrifice I am (and will always be).

Without a Holy Week, it would be always Ordinary Time. Without Holy Week, I'd never reach Easter.

Attribution(s): "The Mocking of Christ," "Christ Bearing the Cross," and "Crucifixion," all by Matthias Grünewald and all licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.