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Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

To Be Wretched and Redeemed: a Sermon for Spy Wednesday

I begin by quoting Pascal:

Christianity is strange; it bids man to recognize that he is vile, and even abominable, and bids him want to be like God. Without such a counterweight his exaltation would make him horribly vain or his abasement horribly abject.[1]

Pascal repeats this paradox in various ways and in various contexts throughout the Pensées. Yes, it may sound like a strange claim at first, or at least something un-Catholic. But it turns out to be quite the opposite.

The drama of human misery and deliverance reaches a fever pitch during this Week of all weeks. How could it not be so? The Church reads the Passion narrative of each of the four Evangelists this week, culminating with that of Saint John on Good Friday. Four times the Church beholds Christ’s bloody vigil in Gethsemane; four times she beholds the sleeping Apostles; four times the kiss of the betrayer; four times the trial, the mockery, the scourging, the crucifixion.

Today, Wednesday of Holy Week, has traditionally borne the name ‘Spy Wednesday,’ in reference to the day on which Judas made his treacherous arrangements with the Sanhedrin to betray the Lord. Thus, today the Church lingers with the mystery of Judas—and in his person, we behold the confrontation of human misery with human redemption.

Natural disasters, material misfortune, even illness and death—these are natural evils that have attended human life since the sin of our first parents. Indeed, it is true that Christ comes as the solution even to natural evils; true that the Father has given us the Son ‘in the dispensation of the fullness of times, to re-establish all things in Christ, that are in heaven and on earth.’[2]

And yet, the most profound misery is moral misery. Without accepting the grace of Christ, moral misery turns to despair and loss. This is what Judas shows us. And the picture could not be more stark.[3] In Saint Peter, on the other hand, we have the portrait of misery redeemed. Saint Peter, also a betrayer, allows us to see what a human life looks like when it returns to Christ.

Therefore we have a choice, each in our own way. It is not an exaggeration to say that all the passions and trials of human history—collectively and personally—are concentrated into this week. Holy Week is meant to place before us the mystery of our own wretchedness—but at the same moment, the mystery of redemption. Pascal is correct. Therefore, we do no service to ourselves or anyone else by passing over the miseries of life. In fact, Pascal’s insight about the strangeness of Christianity conceals a consolation. We are allowed a certain peace in the face of the miseries life, because they are the raw materials, as it were, out of which Christ means build something redeemed.

Thus I end by quoting Pascal. We see his paradox at work in the lives of Judas and Saint Peter; it is at work in us.

All Jesus did was to teach men that they loved themselves, that they were slaves, blind, sick, unhappy and sinful, that he had to deliver, enlighten, sanctify, and heal them, that this would be achieved by men hating themselves and following him through his misery and death on the Cross.[4]

 

 


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by A J Krailsheimer, (Penguin Classics: London, 1995); n 351, p 105.

[2] Ephesians 1, 10; emphasis added.

[3] Cf Matthew 27, 5; Acts 1, 16-18.

[4] Pensées, n 271; p 84.

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