Faith as an Endurance Test

Kick asked me what the ashes were for. I had them on my forehead, as did my mother who was visiting. They’re somewhat obvious, if done right.

“It’s something grownups do to prepare for Easter,” I said, and changed the subject.

I’ve always hated this part of the liturgical calendar, the emphasis on death and guilt, the insistence on prioritizing misery, the endurance test that is Passion Sunday, in which we read the entirety of Jesus’s horrific death. LOOK AT IT, with the presumption that if you turn away, you’re not worthy of that sacrifice: 

 After tweeting out a call for anyone who felt they viewed The Passion Of The Christ at too young an age, we spoke to more than a dozen people who saw the film between the ages of 10 and 15. Some weren’t allowed to cover their eyes. Some sobbed. One puked in her seat. For nearly all of them, it was framed as an event by their parents, their pastors, their teachers, none of whom seemed to care that it spilled more gore than a Troma flick. It was mandatory viewing, and, furthermore, it demanded a reaction. At many screenings, enthusiastic youth pastors filed to the front of the theater as the credits still rolled. There, they encouraged those moved by the graphic violence on screen to commit (or recommit) their lives to Christ. Disoriented preteens, overwhelmed, shuffled forward, heads bowed, splayed hands and spoken tongues descending upon them.

Faith as bludgeon, as blunt instrument of force, driving the faithful into the sea: That’s the church so many turn away from. Faith not as persuasion but as power: 

The move was also very on-brand, notes the New York Times, considering Trump’s appeal with evangelicals. A pastor who is a prominent Trump supporter said the signings were “very appropriate,” and that people ask him to sign their Bibles “all the time.” It isn’t just presidents; other stars in the evangelical world are also often asked to signed Bibles, such as Tim Tebow. Beyond the act itself though, many pointed out that what seemed particularly strange wasn’t just that Trump signed the bibles but that he chose to add his massive signature to the covers.

Stars in the evangelical world, and Trump one of them. Prosperity gospels, pastors flying private planes, Cardinal archbishops soliciting sex during confession: It’s an ugly time for Christianity, as our Middle East wars rage. We keep coming around to this idea that we need to beat a particular kind of belief into those who already want to believe, make of those already faithful an army to oppose unbelievers, as if it’s the atheists who threaten religion. As if they’re the ones making movies about murder, making money and calling it morality.

There’s a moment in The Passion of the Christ that I DO think about all the time, and it’s not the lashes or the crown of thorns, it’s not the nails driven through the hands. It’s Jesus and his mother Mary, talking quietly, Mary teasing him gently because the table he built is a little crooked. That’s what was sacrificed. Part the seas and boil the rivers: This is what brings it home.

Faith isn’t a bludgeon. It’s a torch. You don’t have to be Clockwork Orange-ed into swallowing the horror that is lovingly depicted blood spatter in order to understand someone fully human, with people he loved, violently executed for threatening power on Earth. Walk past any prison, on your way to the altar, and listen to what is said as the ashes are smudged onto your forehead.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I didn’t want to explain it to Kick as more than that.

“We get ready for Easter by going to church and thinking about ways to help others,” I said.

That’s enough.


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