Literary Witness 3
Living in Ordinary Time
By David Mills
It is an amazing story, this life, death, and resurrection we’ve just celebrated. As Dorothy Sayers wrote with some indignation at all the people, secular and Christian both, who think the whole thing boring: “That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find Him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed.”
“Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as News; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it News, and good news at that; though we are apt to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.”
Our living between this great story and the Second Coming — in history’s “Ordinary Time” — explains a lot about Catholic life, and why believers stand out from others. The secular man thinks man has only two options: worldliness or unworldliness. He goes full tilt for the first but expects the religious man to renounce it all. When he thinks well of religion he tends to think of an emaciated Indian in a loincloth with a begging bowl, and when he thinks badly of religion he thinks of a raving fundamentalist preacher with a floppy Bible, but in either case he thinks the religious man just doesn’t fit in.
But then he finds Catholics in habits and Catholics in robes lined with ermine, Catholics eating small meals of bread and water and Catholics eating feasts of steak and wine, Catholics living on subsistence farms and Catholics at the head of giant corporations. And he may even find that the feasting ceo lives on bread and water at some times of the year, and that he honors the monk in the habit and the small farmer as if they were even more successful than he is.
It’s all inexplicable, till you see that the Catholic lives in a world in which Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the Father, leaving us in the world our sins have created.
For one thing, our knowing we live between Easter and the Second Coming explains our funny mix of discontent and happiness, of insecurity and confidence. It baffles some unbelievers who expect us to be living in poverty on a mountain top always talking about Heaven, and find us going swimming or grilling hamburgers, or else expect to find us by the grill and find us on our knees by the Cross. This isn’t their idea of a religion that believes in life after death.
God does not give us “the settled happiness and security which we all desire,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “but joy, pleasure, and merriment he has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.”
The reason, he continues, is that the security we want “would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God,” while pleasures like friends or football don’t. “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
And it explains why the spectacle of human sin in the Church does not lessen our belief in her Divine origins and end, when others insist that it should. If Jesus is who he says he is, Tolkien argued, “this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all.”
We should grieve for it, “But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalizers not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly St. Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.”
Finally, it explains why we don’t panic at every crisis in the Church and in the world. All sorts of important people keep predicting the end of Christianity, and prominent theologians declare that to survive the Church must reject all those ancient doctrines and uncomfortable disciplines and all those utterly un-p.c. rules. Yet the rest of us continue serenely living that allegedly outdated Catholic life as best we can.
Ash Wednesday and Lent remain true, but Easter rules, as the kids might say. We know that God wins, and we with Him. “Perhaps the drama is played out now, and Jesus is safely dead and buried,” Sayers wrote at the end of the essay on the Creed with which we began. “Perhaps. It is ironical and entertaining to consider that once at least in the world’s history those words might have been spoken with complete conviction, and that was upon the eve of the Resurrection.”
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Living in Ordinary Time” appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Lay Witness.