Would it have really been so bad for one of the Israelites to say, “God, please give me the cash value of my share of the manna and my piece of the promised land, I don’t really want to be part of this any more?”
But the sheer accumulation of vastness joined to the repeated elements of praise and the ever-evolving list of intercessions gave me a humble, grateful perspective on my faith and life that I could not have otherwise known I was missing. As I reached those last few chapters of City, where Augustine talks about the play of light on the sea and the consolations of this life of punishment that merely prefigure the glories to be revealed, I felt something like grief at being parted, at my prayer and hearing going on to a new companion.
And honestly, at first blush I was not sympathetic to Augustine’s self-reproach for watching the lizards and the flies. Let yourself watch the animals, my dude. But as my week away from home and church drew to a close, and I thought about that narrow gate through which I had allowed any diversion to come and how eagerly I wanted to go find those diversions anyway, however pointless or even annoying they might be, I started to understand him better.
There is something in human beings that powerfully resists goodness. Something that powerfully resists God. They have ears but do not hear, as the Old Testament says. Jesus heals but in healing shows us how sick we are. Jesus forgives but in forgiving shows us how sinful we are. Jesus teaches good news but in teaching shows us how much we don’t know. And it can be painful to see and hear these things. It can be easier to shut them out.
In each case, notice that the devil is tempting Jesus to do something that sounds good. Food is good, just and peaceful government is good, the mysterious power of God is good. The devil is taunting Jesus to get serious about these things already. What use is feeding a few thousand here and healing a few there and touching a few hearts somewhere else when you could just grab it all at once–fill every stomach, heal every infirmity, hold every heart in the palm of your hand?
For those of us who share — or try to share — Athanasius’s faith in the Incarnation of the Word, the world on Christmas Day can look like a highly charged place. If God’s action is not remote and distant, or localized in a special place, but abroad in the universe through the mysterious union of God and humanity, the whole crazy, kitschy apparatus of Christmas becomes a little easier to appreciate.
So by this view the ultimately Godless event would be something like the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints dismantling the hapless Minnesota Vikings 42-20. It’s low in cosmic significance and high in probability.
Natural and inevitable desires become a matrix into which the clumsy, inefficient reality of organic life gets plugged. The consequences of this development are ultimately more spiritual than political, as we risk becoming estranged and cut off from the physical world we have learned to use with such remarkable dexterity.
This is not to say, as politicians like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have recently suggested, that churches can step in to replace the social safety net. But in their own small, often invisible ways, local churches do something that I am tempted to call radical in our segmented, individualistic society: They ask us to bear with one another.
The denial of death and guilt has become useful to us, even necessary. Ash Wednesday stands out, then, as a brutally frank reminder of things we have halfway persuaded ourselves aren’t true — that our lives are brief and that we need grace. It’s a reminder people seem to crave. I’ve made empty churches echo with the news that God embraces and forgives, but when the day comes to be marked with the sign of mourning and repentance, the pews are suddenly full.