The Exhaustibility of Goodness
A SERVICE OF TENEBRAE AND THE CELEBRATION OF THE EUCHARIST
Every time I read the story of Jesus’ Passion from the Last Supper in that Upper Room to his burial in a borrowed grave, I think of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, the one where the poet asks “what rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem”?
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So wrote Yeats in 1916, during the worst years of the War to End All Wars, and on the very brink of the Russian Revolution. Yeats noticed that in those awful years “the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” Yeats is right, isn’t he? Evil seems resolute, persistent, tireless, and full of passionate intensity, while the Good lack all conviction, grow weary, lose resolve, and finally fall asleep. Goodness is flat and pale; evil has color and dimension and texture. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
So many people told me so many times that I just have to watch House of Cards that I decided to get stubborn and refuse to watch it–ever–just to be contrary. Two oleaginous strivers oozing their way to the top of the heap in Washington, DC: it just sounded dreadful to me.
But for some reason I tuned in for the first time the other day and got instantly addicted. Now I’m binge-watching it. I’ve probably watched about ten hours this week–and it’s Holy Week. I can’t help myself. There is something so irresistible about Claire and Frank Underwood’s evil energy and passionate intensity that I cannot look away. It is at once horrible and enthralling. It’s like a moral train wreck. Against the Underwoods, the rare, weak, wan instance of Washingtonian virtue just doesn’t stand a chance.
Yeats’ line seems timely and apropos this week as America follows the Boston bombing trial. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s malice is so exhausting, isn’t it? He sits there unaffected by what he is hearing, with that dead and vacant stare.
The defense rested this week by telling us about Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old woman so beloved she’d been a bridesmaid 17 times. The wounds to her lower legs were so severe, she bled to death in less than a minute. And Martin Richard, eight years old. He was wearing a Patriots T-shirt under his green Celtics jersey; the jury saw that they were ripped to shreds.
This is the way the story goes. Full of passionate intensity, the scribes, Pharisees, soldiers, and Judas are beginning their relentless campaign to drive Jesus into a corner. He is about to die, and he knows it.
Tired, scared, alone, Jesus goes off to do what he has always done when he doesn’t know what to do next; he turns to his Father in prayer. He goes to a garden, one of his favorite places on earth, leaves most of his friends at the gate, and goes further in with his three finest friends, Peter, James, and John, because he wants to be alone but not completely alone.
The Bible tells us that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated.” And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” Keep awake, he tells them. Watch with me. Just be with me.
But for months, maybe years, Peter, James, and John have been about the wearying business of trying to change the world, and it’s not been going quite as well as they’d hoped. Evil is remarkably implacable. There are too many injustices to right, too many hungry mouths to feed, too many mistakes to fix, and they are just exhausted. There’s nothing left inside them.
Top off their recent exhausting labors with a few glasses of wine at the Passover celebration, and this is what you get–drowsy disciples. As you know, it is obligatory at Passover Seders to drink at least four glasses of wine, so here you have these three exhausted fishermen with four glasses of Manischewitz pickling their brains and this is what you get.
So Jesus is left all alone. Mark tells us they fell asleep because “their eyes were heavy and they did not know what to say to him.”
You know how it is: your best friend is in trouble, maybe at the hospital, or in the funeral parlor, and you don’t know what to say, so you stay away. You don’t think you can be of any use, so you stay away, and your friend suffers alone. Don’t be too hard on Peter, James, and John. We’ve all been there. There are too many sorrows, and too few words.
Jesus returns to find them sleeping, and says in anguish, “Peter, are you asleep? Could you not watch with me one hour?” Jesus goes off again by himself. He comes back a second time to find the same thing. A third time. Still they sleep. And in some of the saddest words in all of Scripture, Jesus says in futility, “Could you not watch with me one hour? Come, let us be going. My betrayer is at hand.”
Evil is long, strong, patient, and stubborn. Goodness is fragile, tired, human. This is one of the first things you notice about the story of Jesus’ Passion: The listlessness and aimlessness of the good people on the one hand; and on the other, the terrifying efficiency and staggering energy of his enemies. The conspiracy against Jesus is so complicated and so sprawling, you think to yourself at first: “This will never work.”
Think of all the conspirators in this story that have to cooperate with other conspirators they hate almost as much as they hate Jesus: Judas Iscariot with his 30 pieces of silver; and the Roman legions with their chains and manacles; and Caiaphas the High Priest with his kangaroo court of false accusation; and Pilate grilling Jesus in the Governor’s Palace; and Herod demanding a miracle: “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool,” he says to Jesus, at least the way Superstar has it.
The Romans, the Pharisees, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod: these people loathe one another; how could they ever work together as effortlessly as the Wisconsin Basketball Team?
Yet somehow with intricate timing and shapely choreography they work together to entrap the Savior and manage to crush the life out of him in a mere 16 hours–from arrest to extinction. This is a near miracle of organized efficiency. This conspiracy is a Swiss watch; it is a German motorcar; it purrs like a BMW. It is filled with passionate intensity. Meanwhile, the best lack all conviction: Peter, James, and John have fallen asleep. The exhaustibility of goodness.
During my seminary internship, I worked in a Presbyterian church, where one of my parishioners suffered from bipolar disorder. One night in a manic rage he threw his mother through a glass door. She was okay, but he was charged with assault, and thrown into the forensic unit of the state mental hospital. It was where they kept mass murderers, several of them famous from the newspapers. The senior pastor asked me to visit him, because we were exactly the same age: 25. I was so excited to tackle this project. Someone needed me.
And so I went to go see my friend. Here was a chance for me to make a difference. Maybe I’d see one of the serial killers I’d read so much about in the newspapers.
I drove out there a couple of times a week. I went there because I loved him and cared about him and thought I could do some good. I went because it was a high and righteous adventure. It was glamorous, fighting evil like that, getting finger-printed and x-rayed for weapons on the way in, seeing how that world works.
But you know how implacable mental illness can be. The most powerful drugs in the world, the best doctors in the world, couldn’t make him well. What was I going to do?
The whole process just wore me down. I got tired of the hour-long drive out to the ugly, god-forsaken, iron-barred fortress; the barren, pitiful corridors of insanity where broken men and beaten women babble nonsense or rock gently back and forth in a chair staring at a blank wall.
I couldn’t follow his meandering thoughts and puzzling conversations. I started going once a week. Then once a month. Then less still. My eyes grew weary, and like the disciples, I did not know what to say to him.
There was nothing I could do, and nothing I could say, so I fell asleep. I left him alone. I wonder why he never said to me, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” Like Jesus, he forgave me. Almost instantly. We stay in touch.
The worst are full of passionate intensity. But here’s the thing. They can’t win. You can crucify the Christ, but you can’t keep him dead. The people of Boston found this out two years ago this month. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev woke them up. He knit them together into an infrangible union; you will never tear them apart again; he is the SuperGlue that binds them together. They have decided not to be afraid. They are the best, and they no longer lack conviction.
It’s dark just now, on Thursday night, but Dawn breaks on Sunday. So I invite you to stay awake these three days; take your place in the shadow of the cross. If you are weary and need rest, rest is what you will find there. If you are fearful and need courage, courage is what you will find. If you are bored half to death by a life so secure and comfortable it is also flat and empty, challenge is what you will find here. I dare you to come. I dare you. Can we not watch with him one hour?
Come, let us be going. His betrayer is at hand.