Chesterton crucifix

Sign of Contradiction

3:43:00 PMGrace Davies

Once again the annual journey of Lent has led us to its culmination in Holy Week. Our various  winding paths through these 40 days have brought us all to the foot of Golgotha. We look up, and what do we see? A “sign of contradiction.”

These words, we may imagine, echoed in the heart of Mary as she beheld her dying Son. After all, they were addressed to her by Simeon, on that day that must have felt like a lifetime ago when Jesus was just an infant:
Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk 2:34)
Jesus’ public ministry was a roller coaster of approval and disapproval. His life was filled with popularity and intrigue: crowds would one day be seeking him out, clamoring for healing, and the next day they would be complicit in the plotting of the Pharisees, picking up stones to kill him.

Approval is important to every one of us. Nobody likes to be frowned upon. But, like anything, this desire for approval can be heightened to a disordered pitch. Modernity has reached this pitch. Our culture is clearly obsessed with feeling approved and validated.

This cultural obsession is evidenced by the dethronement of charity and the adoption of  tolerance as society’s principal virtue. Today’s cardinal sin is not to harm a man, but to criticize him. People believe they have a right to indulge in all manner of self-destructive behaviors; but their entitlement doesn’t stop there. They also demand that their self-harm be approved of and validated by everyone.

In this environment, as one might expect, Christianity has become rather unpopular. The stubborn insistence of the Popes on matters of morality is looked down upon: at best, as embarrassingly old-fashioned, and at worst, as judgmental and hateful.

But this isn’t anything new. Certainly it shouldn’t be shocking to those of us who look up at Jesus on the cross. “If the world has hated Me, it will hate you too.” Christianity has always been, like Christ, too darn stubborn. And it has never ceased to disapproved of by the many and various popular trends throughout the centuries.

GK Chesterton speaks at length on “the paradoxes of Christianity” in his work Orthodoxy. He recounts his puzzlement, pre-conversion, when he heard the many and contradictory accusations that were hurled at Christianity:
“One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool's paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it. If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another; it could not wear both green and rose-coloured spectacles.”

 He initially dealt with this puzzlement by concluding that Christianity was simply bizarre:
“A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.”

Gradually, he began to see things in a new light: “This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.”

In classic Chestertonian fashion, he describes how the solution struck him like a thunderbolt:
“And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. [...] Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.”

As we look up to the “sign of contradiction” that was raised on Calvary, we come to reflect on what it means for our own life. We begin to see that, as we navigate through the heresies (or fashions) of modern life, we must imitate the holy stubbornness of our Master. We must toss popular conformity to the wind and cling to the cross.

It may, perhaps, never again be fashionable to defend Natural Law. It may not even be safe to remain constant in our affirmation that God made us, “male and female He created them…” to find our perfection in a complementary union, in a Divine and natural institution called marriage. It may soon be absolutely mandated that we shut our eyes and proclaim with everyone else that we can’t see any design in our nature, and that anyone may rewrite human nature as he pleases. But, Chesterton reminds us, that would be too “simple”:

“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. [...] The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. [...] It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
The cross, the “sign of contradiction,” stands erect. So ought we to stand, balanced on the truth and firm in defending it. After all, if we are “persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” at least we know we are in good company. 


Grace Davies 

Reality fascinates me.  To me, everything real is precious and worth finding out about.  That's why I am a student of the phenomenological philosophy to which Hildebrand contributed.  Hildebrand practiced what he preached when he said: "Confronted with being, the reverent man remains silent in order to give it an opportunity to speak."  (The Art of Living)  I hope to achieve Hildebrand's depth of integrity, both as a philosopher and as a person.  


G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.  


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