In a world that knows the extremes of terror and hope, celebration and tragedy, creativity and destructiveness, joy and despair as ours does, there is always a risk of our religion colluding with our desire to live in quiet unruffled equilibrium. It’s as if we shy away from the reality of the human condition.
A great man, Donald Mackinnon, described this as the “cultivated avoidance of extremes”. He wrote, “the idiom of superficial cosmic optimism is currently fashionable”. I wonder if he had in mind the sort of smug, often defiantly cheery religious certainty of those who think God’s in his heaven and all is well with the world.
What Mackinnon argued was that the world could not really be consoled by “remote metaphysical chatter”. Daily our lives are lived between extremes. It is these extremes that Jesus acknowledged and inhabited, he was accused on the one hand of being a wine bibber and carouser, but on the other, he did not avoid the terrible fate that he knew awaited him when he entered the city of Jerusalem.
Daily, our own lives are lived between extremes and however we might contrive to avoid them, tragedy will often strike us, in personal ways and also in the descent to chaos that we see in climate chaos, warfare and poverty, things that unsettle our hope for a stable, unruffled world. Jesus embraced the totality of his life and in this way he found new life.
Jacqueline Kennedy was one whose life inhabited extremes. She was the glamorous wife of one of the most charmed American presidencies, perhaps only to be surpassed by that of Barak and Michelle Obama. She was a beautiful woman who had the world at her feet until the assassin’s bullet took he husband’s life away. But like Jesus himself and Jesus’ mother Mary, she did not shy away when tragedy struck. There is a tragic heroism in her life and we will never fully know what that tragedy gave her as well as took away from her, for she never spoke to a newspaper or sold her story. But there was something moving and dignified about her response to the loss of her husband that had a profound effect on many who noticed how she coped at the time.
One who saw was the poet C. Day Lewis who wrote this moving poem following those tragic events in Dallas, in 1963.
In the triumphal car
Closely escorted through the gaze and heart of
A city, at the height of its golden heydey,
He suddenly slumps.
Cameras show her bending to shelter him
(But death has moved faster), and then a pink
Nimbus veiling the exploding skull.
No order here, no artistry, except for
The well-drilled wounds, the accomplished sacrifice.
But from that wreck
Two images are saved – the wife who
Nurses a shattered world in her lap;
And, flying the coffin home, refuses to change
Out of he yellow blood-spattered dress, with
“Let them all see what was done to him”.