The Revd Brutus Green
The two most important dramatic genres, inherited from the ancient Greeks, but without which Hugh Grant and the Bee Gees would still be nothing, are Comedy and Tragedy. One way of thinking about them would be to say that comedies have happy endings, while tragedies have sad endings, but there’s a little more to it than that. Comedies suggest a certain meaning to life - a pattern by which things work out ok. Comedies say something universal; every story is essentially the same. When you see Sandra Bullock in a movie you know it’s going to end with a ‘to fade screen shot’ of her kissing Keanu Reeves or Bill Pullman, Hugh Grant, Ryan Reynolds or whoever, but certainly some good looking boy; and part of the joy of comedy is knowing the ending.
Tragedies though are particular - they deal with particular faults in people, particular conflicts within individuals, families and society, and their endings challenge our sense of life’s meaning. They conspire with our sense that fate is thwarting us; they portray suffering that is unmerited and never justified; they describe the particular unhappinesses that come out of particular human situations. In comedies fate is serendipity and people grow and overcome their mistakes. In tragedies we have Macbeth’s witches and people trapped in dungeons of their own making.
So comedy comforts us with a universal sense in which everything will be ok; it all has meaning in the end. As the most famous opening line of any novel has it: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. We know how this story will end. Tragedy reminds us that being a person is to be particular, to live with conflict, to feel out of control in a hostile world, to struggle with ambiguity and suffer alone. As another novel’s first line tells us: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
Our faith is also about stories. The Bible tells a story that runs from creation to apocalypse. The story of Jesus (his Incarnation at Christmas, his miracles and teaching, his death, resurrection, ascension and coming again) is the story that shapes the life and liturgy of the church. The story we tell of our own lives is also a story of faith. The Church’s desire to hatch, match and dispatch is an attempt to help with this, hallowing the milestones of life. But hopefully there’s more to the story - so that we recognise moments of wrong-doing in repentance and forgiveness, find in our relationships and careers not just luck and ambition but also blessing and virtue - especially if we work in finance! - and that we have a confident hope in our future in God, which is not thrown at the first realisation of our frailty. This is to understand ourselves as Christian.
So is Christian faith a comedy? Well it might not be laugh-out-loud all the time, but essentially yes. It insists on a happy ending, a universal pattern for the redemption of humanity. Like a bad trailer the resurrection of Christ has given away a little too much. Spoiler alert! This sense of comedy comes across strongly in the Wisdom tradition that we have in our first reading. We are told to live as wise people, making the most of your time; don’t get drunk, sing hymns instead. It’s the sort of common sense approach - do the right thing and it’ll all be good. There’s a whole book of proverbs in the Old Testament, all of which constitute the sort of good sense that’s supposed to get you through life. And as much as the psalms lament the wicked and get annoyed that they seem to do alright, there is always the pleased refrain - AHHH but you have set them in the slippery places. And their true end is never happy. So Christianity wants to tell a comedy, a story of justice, where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. The boy gets the girl, through hard work the man who came from nothing, the working girl, gets the promotion, the cheat leaves empty-handed, the runners their gold medals; we faithful few, our halos and harps. It is the divine comedy.
But should we say then that Christian life is not tragic? Well no. The bible is not so naive and one of its oldest stories, Job, immediately qualifies our assumptions about justice. And the tragic side of the Gospel is all too evident in today’s Gospel in the conflict between Jesus and the authorities. Jesus commands his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Levitical code though carries an absolute prohibition on drinking of blood: “Since the life of every living body is its blood, anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off”. Blood carries the life force of creatures and so is only acceptable to be used in sacrifice. Aside, then, from breaking the widespread taboo against cannibalism, Jesus is setting up the most un-kosher practice and defilement of Jewish ritual here, matched only by his later apparent shattering of the first of all commandments. “you shall have no other gods before me”, as he declares himself equal with the Father.
The conflict comes not because the Jews are bad, but actually because they're trying to be good Jews, but Jesus like most reformers is trying to move them away from literalness and formality to a more authentic spirituality that he himself is embodying. By setting himself against the purity code and declaring himself one with God he is threatening the way of life and authority of the Jewish leaders. He is going beyond the Law of Moses, as seen by comparing himself, as the bread of eternal life, with the bread of Moses, which their ancestors ate and died. Jesus has judged the Jewish authorities and their religion and found them wanting. In the end, either they have to go or he does. There is a tragedy for the Jews here insofar as their formal adherence to their religion leads them to reject what is central to it, and so miss the presence of their God among them. But it is more obviously tragic for Jesus, who comes for love of his people but is rejected by them; who sees his fate and is unable, unwilling to deviate from it. His sacrifice is for an ungrateful people who betray and murder him. He dies misunderstood and alone. It is the tragedy of all reformers and of change generally. It is felt by many in the Church of England today, by Pussy Riot behind bars, and the Arab Spring. “All are punished” - as the Prince in Romeo and Juliet laments.
There is a temptation here for Christians to say ‘yes, but in the end he gets resurrected so really it does end happily ever after’; or ‘yes but it’s worth it because in doing so he brought salvation and the revelation of God to the world’. Both these statements are at least superficially true and draw us back to the vision of Christianity as comedy. This, though, is the same logic uttered by the Jewish high priest in pronouncing that it is ‘expedient’ for one man to die for the people. It means our voice is with the Jewish crowd shouting ‘crucify him!’ If Christianity becomes a happy story with a happy ending, we too are murderers, not disciples. To resolve the tragedy into the larger comedy is to betray Christ. Ethically, it’s the same as endorsing those regimes whose purges and executions are for the benefit of all, for peace and stability. If the death of one man is a tragedy then how much more so twenty thousand in Syria?
That is why the Gospel is littered with difficulty. When we are told that we must take up our cross, it is because Jesus is saying that our faith requires us to side with him in the tragedy of life. The command here that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood is because we must share, must participate in that sacrifice, we must identify with the tragedy of human loss and pain. We should not easily dismiss the tragedies of life we see around us, should not harden our hearts to the suffering of the world, but pray for peace and do what is within our powers to assist them. If we ever find ourselves complicit with political expedience, of writing off even one human being, then we are betraying Christ. After the War Oskar Schindler was presented with a ring inscribed with a Jewish saying “whoever saves one life saves the world entire”. This tragic side of Christianity is really saying that every human life is worth the entire world - you are worth that, and so is the person struggling alongside you. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one.
So we’re called to hope in a comic vision of heavenly peace, but to live amidst the tragic conflict of human relations. The contradiction of the final universal resolution of peace and justice will always seem to us at odds with the particularity of human suffering, but we see now through a glass darkly. Heaven may be an image of perfect peace but as the resurrected Christ continued to bear his wounds, the suffering of the world will neither be erased nor forgotten. In this world, the story of Jesus demands that individuals are not abandoned for someone’s greater good, but also that Christians participate sacrificially in giving ourselves in service to others. The point of having a raised altar in churches is that as we come forward to the high places we lift up ourselves as living sacrifices before God, even as we eat his flesh and drink his blood. In worldly terms this means participating in tragedy. In cosmic terms, though, our faith in God is trusting ultimately in the divine comedy of ending happily ever after.