About twenty-five years ago I discovered an ancient Holy Saturday sermon, dating back to an early time in the Church when some form of memorial service existed to commemorate Christ in his tomb. The sermon can be found in today’s Holy Saturday Office of Readings (second reading) from the Liturgy of the Hours. I found it one of the most moving and unusual Church literary pieces I had ever come across, and I make it a point to read it every year on Holy Saturday.
The unknown homilist imagines the Lord’s “descent into hell,” a phrase from recent translations of our Creeds. He begins by noting “a great stillness on earth today” because “the King is dead.” “God has died in the flesh,” he goes on, “and hell trembles with fear.” The homily goes on to report that God goes about hell “to search for our lost parents…to free from sorrow the captive Adam and Eve, he who is both God and son of Eve.” Adam beholds the Lord in terror, but God takes him by the hand. “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” The sermon goes on at some length as God explains to Adam what is happening, and then bids him to come forth from this foul place for “the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
This homily is an artist’s rendering of our basic theological truth, the eternal love of God for his created people and the extremes to which he would go to share with his fallen children the everlasting banquet of heaven. As literature this piece shares its place with the best of its time, religious and secular. Theologically, this unknown author, writing in Greek possibly fifteen centuries ago, nonetheless would feel right at home with Pope Francis and his intention to designate next year as a year of mercy.
Thus I was significantly moved by a remarkable essay of our own time, yesterday to be exact, from a source we don’t normally associate with religion, The New York Times. The essay is called “The Memory of Catholicism” (April 3) and is product of The Times’ remarkable columnist of religion and ethics, Ross Douthat. Ross was the youngest person ever appointed to the Times editorial board where today, at age 35, he sits at the table with the venerable David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. He converted to Catholicism after tenures with Protestant and Evangelical Churches. I have been reading him regularly for some years now and reviewed his book Bad Religion for Amazon on June 10, 2012. The development of his penetrating wisdom into Catholic history and identity is a joy to behold.
In yesterday’s essay Douthat, after a lengthy but intriguing introduction, looks at the long history of Catholic literature, notably its poetry and novels. (My wife observed that she had never heard of many of the books cited, aside from perhaps Dante. “Ross’s point exactly,” I nodded. Touche.) He explains what while there is an official history of the Church, its non-technical literature has been equally important in conveying the continuity of the core of Catholic belief and practice. He observes that a Catholic of 2015 can pick up a sermon of a Church Father, an ancient Holy Saturday sermon, or the classic The Diary of a Country Priest and find something with which he or she is familiar. Or as the author puts it, today’s reader may feel like he is in a different country, but he still feels at home.
Douthat, who takes a dim view of Catholic trends post World War II, expresses great concern that this thread of literary continuity is dissolving into thinner and thinner strands. In an interesting metaphor, he worries that Catholics will soon no longer have the opportunity to step into “the Catholic time machine.” He does not exactly elaborate on why this is happening except for a somewhat weak assertion that liberals want to bury the past. I can think of two more concrete possibilities: (1) the decline in American schools, and culture generally, of the liberal arts priority. America does not cultivate a love of classical literature, and it has no time for the study of history. (2) In the Catholic milieu, the publishing market—and we might add the wider range of all Catholic art—is glutted with fluff. Even our best Catholic publishers turn out an inordinate amount of literature that amounts to highly subjective person experiences with Jesus, essentially aping the self-centered priority of American culture in general. Nor does Catholic pastoral practice cultivate history: I made a note of the copyright dates of music sung at our Holy Thursday and Good Friday parish celebrations this week. With three exceptions dating to the 1980’s, the music was written and published between 2006 and 2014. I will win the lottery before the ageless wonderful Good Friday tradition of “The Reproaches” is ever sung in my church—though every missalette in the U.S. contains the directive to do so.
The Triduum is the ultimate moment of remembrance—the once in history event that promises more than we can ever hope for. Can we celebrate these days with no tradition and deadened memories? I think not.