The Diagram of Glory – A Candour of Despair: Ash Wednesday

On Sunday last the Church invited us to the Mount of Transfiguration to behold the diagram of glory into which humanity will one day be drawn. As the humanity of Christ was ablaze with the glory of his divinity, so shall we all one day be made glorious. But we were reminded on Sunday morning, in the words of the writer, Charles Williams, that ‘The word glory, to English ears, usually means no more than a kind of mazy bright blur. But the maze should be, though it generally is not, exact, and the brightness should be that of a geometrical pattern.’


Wherein lies the exactitude? What exactly is the pattern we are supposed to see in the delineation of the glory?


Of Williams it has been said: ‘the whole universe is to be known as good. But this was a truth to him as agonizing as it was inescapable… only to be “believed with sighs”….’


The exactitude is agonizing, for to be exact the diagram of glory must somehow contain within its overarching reality a candour of despair. If the glory emanating from the summit of Mount Tabor is a sign of the ineradicable triumphalism that suffuses the New Testament witness, it is a triumphalism that promises a victory that is yet to come. For at the bottom of the mountain in Jesus absence the disciples, the church, have found themselves utterly unable to help a father whose boy, foaming at the mouth and tearing at himself, is possessed of a vicious demon that throws the him into the fire to burn him alive or into the water to drown him. The father, beside himself with grief and worry, ignoring now the nascent yet forever-to-be-desperately-inadequate church, cries out to Jesus, ‘If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.’


This is the despairing cry of humanity. ‘If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.’ Something like this is in fact to be found in the keening grief of the greater apes, the porpoise, and the elephant in the face of death and loss. According to St. Paul, it is in fact the great moaning agony of the whole creation, the cross before the cross, the suffering that is ours before it ever was his, the goodness of a world that was lost, seemingly forever, in some extraordinary aboriginal abysmal catastrophe, a world that was thrown into the wounded freedom of cosmic space and time and in human consciousness came to know itself as lost, damaged, and abandoned.


Philosophers apart, the tormented cry of ordinary people is: If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.


Tonight we come to another mountain and here listen to a sermon, preached by this same Jesus. And if anything at all is clear in Christianity it is that Jesus looked with compassion upon those simple forgotten ordinary people, the poor and scum of the earth, who came to hear him preach.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


These are the eight solemn blessings that mark the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus makes it clear, in the first blessing, that he has come to bring comfort to those who are bent down, humble, meek, and gentle; those who by virtue of their low estate, their social dependence, and their defenseless exposure to injustice from the rich and the mighty are made to go hungry, to grovel, to suffer the physical pain of persecution. Jesus comes for those who by any circumstance whatever have become nothing but beggars before God, the poor and the poor in spirit, the hungry and those who hunger for justice, the grieving and the inconsolable.


Jesus has come, in other words, for the greater mass of humanity. Perhaps few thinkers have ever captured the desperation of human existence with more eloquence than the German writer, Arthur Schopenhauer: human life, he lamented, is nothing but ‘much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling…’.


But this is more candour than most people are prepared to listen to. A recent edition of Chekov timidly explains that each play has at least one character that expresses some hope for a brighter future, while a school board in South Africa has banned Hamlet because it is not uplifting, which indeed it is not.


Many Protestants dislike this despairing candour because they believe that good Calvinists should have the good sense not to live at the foot of volcanoes, or take holidays anywhere near the volatile geodynamic fissures of those southern coastal regions inhabited by Hindus and Buddhists and other unbelievers, or relocate to catholic infested cities like New Orleans. Christians, believing that prayer somehow insulates them from the colossal disasters that beset our planet, presumably think that prayers in puritan New England or Anglican Ontario will in the long run prove to be more effective than those offered anywhere along the seismically precarious west coast of North America.


Secular liberals like Richard Dawkins rest content in what the Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton calls ‘the staggeringly complacent belief that we are all becoming kinder and more civilized.’ It is true that Dawkins refers in saying this to the 21st century so perhaps he thought that the 20th century should be politely ignored, it being the worst in history but perhaps nonetheless a mere speed bump on the highway of progress. Dawkins, one supposes, believes that we are safer in the hands of nice people with smart bombs than our ancestors ever were in the hands of smart people with nice swords.


On the other hand, Eagleton has little use for his fellow leftists who argue that this kind of pessimism leads to quietism. The beginning of political wisdom, he argues, is realism and the truth is that we most urgently need, as Isaiah makes plain, to set the prisoner free, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked just because the need is so urgent and so universal. Human history, said Theodor Adorno, is a ‘permanent catastrophe’. Hegel, though generally thought an optimist, called it a ‘slaughter bench.’ Beggars before God is what most humans have always been.


What hope is there in the face of this candid avowal of the human predicament? Though the New Testament presents, in the words of one scholar, a ‘magnificent poetic-theological dialectic’, its ‘salvation drama’ ‘remains a consolatory fantasy, all the more insidious for its enduring appeal. The fact that past attempts to realise the dreams of reason and freedom through the quest for social progress have ended in failure indicates the need to deepen the humanist project….’


The Christian has no reason to begrudge a deepening of the humanist project. Clearly this writer could stand to deepen his. The problem here is not that he has called our faith a fantasy but that he cannot see that what he proposes is also fantastic. It is rather that no matter how deep the humanist project goes, we will still have to die. Pain and hunger, grief, poverty, humiliation, and despair draw their power finally from this reality, what St. Paul called the last enemy. ‘Remember oh man, that dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.’ In the face of this reality the appeal of magnificent consolatory fantasy will always endure.


What then does the consolatory God think of sin, suffering, evil, and death? We can discuss the philosophical merits of the Judeo-Christian tradition another time. But fantasy or not, we need to know wherein resides its consolatory power. One thing is clear: it is consolatory just because our case is so desperate and we are so despairing. ‘If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.’ So what does God think of sin, suffering, evil, and death? In Jesus, the Christ of God, we see that his opposition is as relentless as it is regal, as compassionate as it is all encompassing. In the words of David Bentley Hart: ‘sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers.’


A candour of despair leaves us with no other hope. If the lonely, forgotten, and broken dead – the truly desolate, beggars indeed – are ever to have their lives back, it will come in no other way than through the streaming glory that shrouds the summit of the Mount of Transfiguration. Final justice in the universe is hard to conceive on any account. Short of some sort of bodily resurrection it is well night impossible. We are here tonight because we must frankly admit that we are merely human and our need is great.


We need the consolation of God. We need the diagram of glory.