On Holy Friday, our seminary Dean, Fr. John Behr, delivered a sermon that includes several lines from “East Coker,” the second poem of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which the poet meditates upon the cycle of life—birth, death, rebellion, and return.
In his homily, Fr. John deftly interweaves the poem’s lines with the main theme of Holy Friday: in order to truly be alive, we Christians must follow the footsteps of Christ into death. Through the trials of earthly life, we have to “unlearn” the futility of our tendency toward self-preservation and self-satisfaction, in order to receive immortal life as a gift from our heavenly Father. From the tomb of our own death—as we are co-crucified with Christ and as we enter into a loving relationship of obedience to our Father—will spring forth everlasting life.
Let us rejoice in this Truth during this Bright Season!
Standing at the tomb, having just buried the body of Christ, we enter into the midpoint— the still point—of the Paschal Triduum, the three-day celebration of the Paschal Mystery.
At Matins, we stood before the crucified Christ,
as the chill ascended from his feet to his knees,
and upwards to the hands into which the nails were driven,
as he was put to death,
or rather voluntarily gave himself up for the life of the world,
so that, as T.S. Eliot put it, the wounded surgeon plies the steel,
turning the nails driven into his hands
into the scalpel used by surgeon,
but exercised now with bleeding hands
so that we feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art,
questioning the distempered part.
A strange and mysterious reversal takes place here:
we think that we are tending to the dead body of the Christ,
burying him with due reverence and sorrow;
that we are still living and healthy, while he is placed in the earth;
but it is he who is attending to us,
and in so doing, showing us that our only health is the disease,
if we obey the dying nurse.
There is no other path to life than the one that he first takes,
and we too must now follow in his footsteps.
As we do so, we will find out that his constant care is not to please,
to attend to our wishes and desires, for a life happy and full,
but rather to remind us of our and Adam’s curse,
That our attempt to snatch life from the tree, to have it on our own terms,
even if we then resolve to devote some of it to God and our neighbor,
while we do all we can do to preserve our life, to secure it, to supposedly save it,
this condemns us to death—for not having received it as a gift
a gift to be given,
a giving of life in which alone is found that life which cannot be touched by death.
And so, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
until we too learn, not only in our heads but in our guts,
that we do not have life in ourselves.
With his life spent, expended upon us, and now with his body placed in the earth
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
All our life on this earth, and ending in the earth, is the cure that leads us to life,
a paedagogy, educating us, teaching us that life comes from the tomb,
for it is given to those in the tombs;
And what a lot we have to unlearn!
We spend the greater part of our so-called life trying to be something other than the weak and vulnerable flesh and blood that we are;
trying to be somewhere else;
creating an identity for ourselves, and grieved when things don’t go our way
so that our lives are veiled by sorrow and grief, by suffering,
but not the life-creating suffering that we are shown in these days.
In this earthly hospital and school, then,
we learn not to place our hope on anything we can achieve in it,
or anything that appears in it
for this world too passes away,
and all the monuments and achievements of human beings turn to dust.
And so, placed in this world as a hospital,
if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care.
The compassion of our Father is limitless and unconstrained;
we are held in his loving care,
as he works tirelessly and ceaseless in every way to bring us to receive his love and life
to change our hearts from stone into flesh,
broken and contrite, but also merciful and loving as he is and his and our heavenly Father.
This is what it is to submit to the paternal care, to obey the dying nurse
and to undergo the surgery of the wounded surgeon plying the steel.
The medicine he offers us, the medicine of immortality, as St. Ignatius calls it,
is nothing other than his flesh and blood:
As Eliot concludes:
The dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food:
and he continues:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
And, again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
Let us, then, now and in the hours that come, prepare ourselves to enjoy the Master’s hospitality at the Paschal Feast;
knowing that we are not sound and substantial,
but prepared to partake of the cup that he has drunk, to its bitter end;
and so become living witnesses, martyrs, in this world and for this world;
inviting others to come and also taste that the Lord is good, chrestos.
Be my witnesses/martyrs, says God through Isaiah;
for I too am a witness and so is my servant.
Then, living this way, in spite of everything, we too may witness that this Friday
is in deed and truth good.
Excerpt from “East Coker” from FOUR QUARTETS by T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1940 by T.S. Eliot, renewed 1968 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
[Photos: Glen Mules]