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Epitaphion (3)

I said to my soul, be still: and wait without hope
              For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
                            T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

If we follow the Gospel narratives closely during Holy Week, we will notice that the events recounted begin, more or less, to recommence in real time. On His way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops in Bethany. He then proceeds into Jerusalem to the triumphal cries of the children, “Hosanna!” that is, “Save us!” He proceeds to the Mount of Olives to give a discourse on the end of days, and comes down to celebrate the Passover with His disciples. From there, things fall apart: He is betrayed, He is tried, He is flogged, and He is crucified. A week that began in radiant joy and triumph terminates in grief and trauma.

We know that “Sunday is coming,” to repeat what is now a well-worn platitude. At least we know this to be true. However, His disciples evidently did not know what was going to happen (in spite of having been told on a number of occasions). Jesus’ talk of being handed over, killed, and rising again on the third day seems to have fallen on deaf ears. And now, in the absence of their Shepherd, the disciples are scattered in disappointment and despair.

What were they expecting? Perhaps a Judas Maccabeus-style uprising in which foreign powers are put to shame and expunged from their land. Perhaps a supernatural display of supreme might in which legions of angels descend from heaven to judge the wicked and restore the righteous. Maybe some simply wanted to enjoy the solemn feast with their beloved Master, and were looking forward to other things entirely—we cannot rule out some of these basic human expectations about the flow of time and events in life. What was on their radar? What did they think was going to happen? How could they not have known?

“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, and to the Greeks foolishness,” says St. Paul (1 Cor 1:23) after the facts of the matter have passed into the retrospect of salvation history. But in the midst of the experience, we have not the freedom to luxuriate in its meaning. We have not the time to indulge in hope. The desolation of the disciples, the tears of His most-pure Mother, the hospitality of Joseph of Arimathea—these sentiments proceed out of the depth and immediacy of the event as it unfolds in the personal histories of this constellation of characters who comprise the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation. For the kenosis to have been real, how could they have drawn hope from the promise of resurrection? How could they not grieve? How can we—who’ve heard the tale, ad nauseum maybe, its poignancy rendered banal and cliché—afford to recollect these events without somehow, by an inner ascetical act, renouncing our claim on the hope of Pascha and simply sharing in the suffering of the timeless moment of the revelation of divine Love?

We will not all be moved to tears during the services of this upcoming week—for very few of us will this year’s Holy Week even resemble that of years past. The beauty and drama of the Church’s liturgical representations of our saving history will be absent, or at most recreated in the confines of home. Regardless, to renounce hope in the spirit of Holy Week is not necessarily to strive for an ecstatic mystical vision of the Lord’s passion. Rather, to make the hopelessness of the disciples and tears of Mary our own means to accept the words of St. Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell, and do not despair.” Our Lord Himself, though He knew what was to come, is not prevented from crying out in despair at divine forsakenness. What, then, is real hope if it is not the mere consolation that “this too shall pass?”

This might not be the place to hazard a philosophical definition, but at the very least I think we need to accept that the hope of Christians involves a degree of absurdity or holy foolishness. Longing and expectation for a relief from sufferings, optimism about the future of the human race, anticipation at the reunion with departed loved ones in the age to come—these things are reasonable and lovely and honorable and normal. But the hope that “anchors the soul” (Heb 6:19) is ascetical in nature: a hope without hope, an indefinite lonesomeness, a divine darkness.

The pseudepigraphal Gospel of Thomas attributes to Jesus a fascinating aphorism: “Who stands near me is near to the fire.” This  is why it is important for us to place ourselves at the foot of Jesus’ cross with His Mother, alongside Peter in the cold half-lit hours of the dawn; we should attend to the languishing ennui in Pilate’s voice and perhaps we should even walk with Judas to the hanging tree. The Lord’s suffering on the cross, the pure white light of His hopelessness, is refracted into the lives of these characters: only if the Lord’s death becomes our death does our hell become His Golgotha, and so my hopelessness becomes salvation from my own narrow expectations concerning myself and the confused aspirations of my unenlightened heart.

Can we bear to believe that the fire of hell is the fire of the offering, and the offering is the hopelessness of the Cross at Golgotha? Do I desire to drink of the cup of which He drinks, not only this week at Holy Friday, but today in the palpable suffering of my neighbor? Only because God embraces hopelessness can our sadness be made bright: but it ought to remain a very real sadness. For the joy of Pascha is costly—it bereaves us of cherished expectations, of cheap comfort, of political optimism, and even the justice of temporal powers—but it fills us with an everlasting light that illuminates the world as having been established upon the Cross and fulfilled in Resurrection.

How, then, can the joy of Pascha be real joy if it is also conjoined with sadness? On the one hand, perhaps this antinomy is itself the very essence of Christian hope. On the other hand, this union may only be available to the tragic paternal Love of God: the very Love that promises to turn our mourning into dancing.

But for now, let all mortal flesh keep silence and mourn, for Jesus our Lord is crucified.

See the Lenten Reflections 2020 section in our Archives 2020, and Lenten Reflections: An Invitation to Write if you would like to write for this series between now and Pascha.

Daniel Nicholas holds a BA in philosophy and biblical studies from Eastern University near Philadelphia and teaches English at a public high school in central Texas. He serves as a reader in the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), has published previously at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and writes a scrap or two of poetry in his spare time. You can follow him on Twitter at his personal account and his new account devoted to Dostoevsky.

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