Holy Saturday

There is a tradition among secular media outlets and certain Christians who wish to appear down “with the times” to question the historicity of the Gospels, particularly the Resurrection of Christ. This sad spectacle prompts more faithful followers of our Lord to set forth arguments and evidence of mixed weight in favor of the Biblical account. I won’t restate them here; a quick Google search will direct you to a plethora of books, articles, and websites dealing with the matter. Not surprisingly, few skeptics are ever convinced by these apologetics. There’s too much at stake ideologically for them to give any credence that Christianity is true. As for Christians themselves, including Catholics, there remains a sense—perhaps even a strong sense—that while Christ’s death on the Cross “did something,” whatever happened on Holy Saturday and Pascha is of peripheral importance. Maybe Christ rose from the dead; but if he did not, then we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. What is “crucial,” what is “central,” is that by at least arising in the hearts of his closest followers, Jesus and the message of peace he (allegedly) came to spread lives on to this very day among those who call themselves Christians.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who, following the questionable thinking of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, profess that something really happened after the Crucifixion, namely Christ enduring radical suffering in hell. And although those who challenged Balthasar on this point were for many years subjected to derision and false accusations on the grounds that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI endorsed Balthasar, Lyra Pitstick’s Christ’s Descent into Hell (Eerdmans 2016) demonstrates that Balthasar’s heterodoxy never met with papal approval. Where the desire for the tormented Christ comes from is anybody’s guess. However, it is not entirely surprising that those whose views cut along Balthasarian lines tend to lean Universalist as well, perhaps believing that the profundity of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the devil could only give rise to such a powerful explosion of grace that even the hardened unbeliever, the unrepentant sinner, and the far larger mass of humanity which has always been lukewarm will be saved. (Exceptions to this “rule” include Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

For those orthodox souls who still hold to the traditional understanding of Holy Saturday, an opportunity is presented to meditate on not only Christ’s salvific work, but the present state of the Catholic Church. For more than 50 years, the faithful have been forced to watch the passion of the Church, how she has been made to suffer terribly and almost seem to die in those lands which for over a millennium accepted her. Although this suffering may no longer be over, orthodox Catholics find themselves in the darkness of Holy Saturday and the confusion that accompanies witnessing the Church—which is of divine origin—decline and crumble like a mere human institution. While faith tells these Catholics that the Church can never truly die (“the gates of hell shall not prevail”), that she will ultimately overcome the present trials God has given her, there remains an understandable distress among the faithful over when she will rise up again. It is not surprising that this distress gives rise to certain eschatological expectations that may or may not be warranted.

Distress often gives way to despair, something that Catholics have no right to do. It is not possible to remain faithful to the deposit of faith and hold that the Church is coming to an end. This is why it is imperative to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love; without them there is no conceivable way a man can endure the ongoing crisis. Even if one is not inclined toward embracing the moral depravity that contemporary society has worked so hard to normalize, the temptation to abandon the narrow path to Heaven out of a belief that Catholicism no longer has anything to offer (or, rather, nothing “exclusive” to offer) still pulls at the hearts and minds of many. It is very hard to take seriously what so many in the Church no longer seem to care about, namely Salvation—“the one thing needful.” If eternal bliss or, absent that, metaphysical surety and mundane comfort, are to be found primarily in one’s “authentic life choices,” then what use is the Church? Is it not merely a cultural expression, a barely living artifact destined to go the way of the cult of Apollo or the Norse religion?

Heaven forbid that thought should enter the mind of any Catholic, but it does every day. Perhaps then on this Holy Saturday and certainly tomorrow’s Paschal celebration we should rejoice in Christ’s conquest over death while directing that joy into fervent prayer for God to illumine those tempted by the darkness of despair. A season of great joy is upon us; let us not celebrate selfishly in the confidence that we are not lost, but rather hope that the Paschal Mystery will be felt by those tempted to abandon the Faith altogether. For who knows what scandal, what false teaching, or poor example from a priest or prelate will rattle our commitment to the Church. And on that day, won’t our souls long for the grace to remain resolute so that we, too, may join the choirs of angels and saints in Heaven, singing praises before the Throne of God?

Lazarus Saturday

For those following the Byzantine Rite, today is Lazarus Saturday, which recalls the narrative of Christ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. It is a liturgical commemoration that rests between the sorrowful days of Great Lent and the joyful Resurrection of Our Lord while pointing beyond itself to the General Resurrection. This liturgical day, like the Gospel account which undergirds it, is unique insofar as it brings into sharp relief both the humanity (“Jesus wept”) and divinity (“Lazarus, come forth”) of Christ.

As with all things Byzantine, this day can be invested with all sorts of spiritual meaning, some less saccharine and more sober than others. Many Orthodox Christians in particular will likely recall the scene from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Sonya reads Raskolnikov the Lazarus pericope, perhaps compelling them to connect the death due to their own sinfulness with the need for Christ’s love to overcome it. Lazarus, who by virtue of his friendship with Our Lord, most likely lived a far less sinful life than you and I, and yet he was condemned to death—that gross interruption in God’s plan for us brought into the world by our first parents and perpetuated to this very day. Lazarus, a holy man, still perished; he suffered a death that only the command of Christ could overcome. It is the same death we are all doomed to suffer, without prior knowledge of when, where, or how it will occur. All that we know, all that we can know, is that it will be Christ alone who calls us forth from the tomb to eternal life, one spent either with Him in bliss or with Satan in eternal torment.

If, like me, you have maintained the time honored tradition of having a bad Lent, one where the devil rides you hard and all of the spiritual commitments, sacrifices, and personal reforms you set out to accomplish go by the wayside before the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Lazarus Saturday holds out the hope of new life in the Lord. After being spiritually dead in the tomb of life’s distractions, petty trials, and fuss, Jesus still desires that we come forth to join him on Palm Sunday for his triumphant procession into Jerusalem and then to suffer by His side in Holy Week. We do not have to wait for the 11th hour; there is still time to labor for Christ, to pick up our cross and follow Him to Golgotha, to recollect ourselves in the anticipation of Holy Saturday, and rejoice with the Blessed Mother of God in the Resurrection of her Son on the third day. The only question that must be answered on this day is if we will respond to Jesus’ call and come forth, or opt instead to wallow in the darkness of our own sinfulness by refusing His love.

Trump, Syria, and Buyer’s Remorse

Many a man, particularly Christian ones, are suffering from buyer’s remorse today after news broke last night that President Donald Trump authorized missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime. There were concerns leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election that Hillary Clinton, had she won, would needlessly involve the United States in a military conflict by enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. That move would have likely upset Russia, which has actively supported Assad’s campaign against rebel fighters (including the Islamic State) in the country. Trump, many believed, would be less hawkish than many mainline Republicans and find a way to build stronger ties with Russia as part of a united front against terrorism. Granted, last night’s “demonstration” was rather modest, and no one yet knows if Trump will authorize any further military action. However, as things currently stand, it appears that Trump’s foreign policy won’t cut along strictly anti-interventionist lines.

The situation in Syria is unique insofar as Assad’s regime remains one of the truly last secular governments in a Muslim-majority country in the Middle East. Moreover, Syria has failed to “play by the rules” of globalism over the years by maintaining a state-owned central bank; refusing to submit itself to the International Monetary Fund by taking out condition-heavy loans; and maintaining deep oil and gas reserves. Assad in particular balked at the idea of an “Arab Spring,” no doubt realizing that any attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East results in religious conflict, ethnic cleansing, and mass destabilization. Of course, none of this is to say that Assad is a “good man” by contemporary lights; the tactics of his military operation have been quite brutal, and it’s certainly not beyond the pale to suspect his regime of committing war crimes. However, the recent charge of using chemical weapons does ring strange considering that Assad had little-to-no reason to deploy them in the midst of a campaign his army was finally winning and that using such weapons opened the door wide for “justified” Western retaliation.

Or is this all a show? Some opine that Trump, Assad, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are all “in on it” with regard to last night’s attack. If the stories are true, the missile strike did almost no damage to Syria’s military and only served to bolster Trump’s national standing by appearing to “look tough” on an “evil regime.” Putin, for his part, gets to posture with moral outrage at the “illegal” American attack, thus currying favor with his own constituents while avoiding any direct confrontation with the United States. This theory will take on greater plausibility in the coming days and weeks if Trump avoids getting America further involved in the intra-Syrian conflict.

Regardless, Trump has shown himself as a leader not to be trusted—something both liberals and conservatives warned about over the past year. The worry is that, as in business, Trump will prove himself to be an opportunist in politics, making decisions not in line with campaign promises or a coherent policy framework, but rather in accordance with naked self-interest. This would not make Trump unique in recent political history, mind you. Remember that in the midst of a very public sex scandal and subsequent criminal investigation, Bill Clinton authorized air strikes against Iraq in order to improve his image, distract from the affair, or both. Trump, who has been on the ropes since taking office due to constant pushbacks from the judiciary, media, and within his own party, is staring down the barrel of ongoing accusations of colluding with the Russians in the run-up to his election. What better way to get some of the heat off his back than appearing to clash with Russian interests?

The primary cause for concern in Syria should remain the status of its ever-dwindling Christian population. Catholics and Orthodox alike have suffered terribly during the country’s civil war, and they will continue to suffer if the forces of militant Islam are not put down once and for all. Assad’s regime is their katechon, a restrainer holding back the lawlessness that would leave a river of Christian blood running through the country. To the extent that Trump and his allies take action that places Syria’s Christians further in harm’s way, they must be rejected, and rejected forcefully by American Catholics. Moral indecency does not get a free pass simply because it is carried out by one’s preferred candidate. While it is heartening to see some Christian supporters of Trump come around to this reality, it may take more than one betrayal for many others to realize that Trump’s ascendency is and will always be a “lesser of two evils,” but an evil nonetheless.

My Last Word on this “Benedict Option” Business

The cottage industry that sprung up around Rod Dreher’s proposal for a “Benedict Option” has exploded into a veritable industry now that his book with the same name has been published. Although there are many praising Dreher’s efforts, there seems to be just as many (if not more) criticizing them, sometimes thoughtlessly. Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith, for instance, pulled the race card on Dreher in the pages of The Washington Post; others soon followed. A more compelling critique of Dreher concerns his apparent blindness to class. Is the “Benedict Option” only available to a privileged few?

My main concern with Dreher’s proposal, aside from the fact that it’s gimmicky and seems to ignore the fact that there have been serious and intentional Christian communities at work for decades, is that it has less to do with saving Western (Christian) civilization and more to do with preserving a certain lifestyle that is only available to those who have bought into a late-capitalist idea of what “success” and “happiness” looks like. And then there is the a-confessional nature of Dreher’s work. Despite one time being a professed Catholic, Dreher turned to Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and yet rarely seems to take his own confession seriously when it comes to confronting secularism, liberalism, and capitalism. In many respects, Dreher remains a Catholic intellectually, and seems to wish for Catholics to join him in standing up against (post)modernity. But to what end? Why should Catholics, if they are serious and intentional about their faith, work toward providing a living space for Dreher, someone who has generated attention for himself by attacking Catholicism uncharitably despite clinging so strongly to the Catholic intellectual tradition?

Only Dreher can answer these questions, and I doubt he ever will. He knows as well as anyone that Eastern Orthodoxy in the West is little more than a backwater with an occasionally overinflated sense of its importance due to the willingness of both Catholics and Protestants to give them a prime seat at the discussion table. He likely realizes by now that there will be no serious and intentional Orthodox response to the problems plaguing America, not when the Orthodox have so many other things on their plate like recognizing each other’s sacraments and squabbling over who gets to claim Qatar’s remnant Christian population as part of their jurisdictional fold. That’s not to say I don’t wish things were otherwise. As heirs of Byzantine Christianity with a rich liturgical, spiritual, and theological patrimony, the Orthodox should be as well-poised as any Christian confession to both comprehend and respond to the contemporary world; but for a laundry list of historical and culture reasons I need not go into here, Orthodoxy, both in the United States and across the globe, remains beholden to an unsettling backwardness which stymies its growth and largely renders it incapable of achieving any higher “status” than being a handmaid of largely secularized states. On the imminent plane at least, Dreher knows Orthodoxy cannot save us.

Not that Catholicism is doing a much better job. While serious and intentional Catholic communities (and movements) certainly exist, Catholicism writ large has been wandering in the darkness of liberalism for more than half-a-century now with no immediate end in sight. These communities, it should be noted, are not the byproduct of a certain strand of academic posturing favored by certain “illiberal Catholic” types, but rather the outgrowth of authentic missionary work carried out by (a handful of) bishops, priests, and religious in concert with a growing body of laity who realize that they have been cutoff unjustly from their own heritage. Perhaps the biggest obstacle lying in the way of these Catholics fully realizing intentional and serious communities is economics. For while there are many critiques of capitalism available, the sad reality is that even so-called traditionalist Catholics are still beholden to the assumptions and benefits of capitalism. They associate, wrongly, a “free market” with the sort of prosperity envisioned by the Church, ignoring along the way the magisterial pronouncements of the Church on just wages, subsidiarity, solidarity, and so forth. In the end, they cannot avoid compromising with the world.

Sadly, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is unlikely to set in motion the sort of soul searching necessary for Christians of any stripe to find a true horizon beyond liberalism. Even those who do not care for what Dreher has to say are, more often than not, looking to preserve their liberal-oriented way of life which they like to think of us “authentically Christian.” And for that reason perhaps above all others, Dreher won’t win himself many friends. He may be off the mark in some critical respects, but trying to do anything which may upset conventions, even the conventions of those who like to see themselves as heroically “on the margins,” is a perilous task. However, this may not bother Dreher that much in the long run. As the great sage and paragon of virtue, Eric Bischoff, says, “Controversy creates cash.”