Date: May 17, 2015
Bible Text: Luke 24:44–52 | Reverend Catherine Knott
In the Universe of Cats on the Internet, I’d like to highlight a personal favorite of mine. I confess that as a keeper and parent of dogs it’s a little peculiar to have a favorite internet cat, but this feline in some ways best embodies what the species does: sullenly philosophize. I realize many may think I’m referring to Grumpy Cat, the perpetually displeased Himalayan, but, in this case, this is Cat Camus: Henri, Le Chet Noir.
Henri, as suggested in his namesake, is a fluffy coon-cat like creature, draped in a mane of stark, highly contrasted black and white fluff. He is not a resident of Paris, but does live in the existentially gloomy locale of Seattle, Washington, where his owner videos his regular adventures and provides commentary with poor French accent to the sound of mournful Satie on the piano.
Henri’s hopelessness and ennui have made their way into coffee table books and yes, even calendars. I bought the 2014 edition, myself. In a recent video dubbed “The Blight of Spring,” Henri remarks on the utter delusion of the spring season: from his morose vantage point, it is at best a season of cacophonous bird song sung too early in the morning, and at its worst, a time for the activity which is only done for the purpose of human vanity: brushing the cat. He laments, “The final indignity of spring is the brushing: the cruel inevitability…it is like spring, an empty gesture, with no purpose whatsoever.”
Not able to resign to his fate like a Nietzschean supercat, he claims to bear the suffering with a kind of quiet rage. The poor kitty sees his nine lives as an endless cycle of something terrible: he is doomed to hear birds; he is doomed to be brushed. No plea or action on his part can stop any of this.
One would hope that we humans would fare slightly better on our outlook than that of a self-absorbed housecat, but Henri is simply rooted in the existential tradition that finds its home more readily among the bipeds: after all, cats have no knowledge of their mortal coil. We however, as Simone Beauvoir suggests, are in a difficult bind as persons who know that we are going to die, yet are not free to transcend this absurdity of existence.
It’s a terrible burden to be a person sometimes: we are given the wisdom to know of our limitation(s). That can certainly entice one to days of rumination with nothing but black coffee to drink.
The sheer terror of mortal existence didn’t start with the Kierkegaard crowd, either. We only have to look back to the Old Testament’s mound of Wisdom literature, where the less-than-cheerful strains of Ecclesiastes hits us square in the face with a mean sucker punch: “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavily upon humankind” (6:1). Too gloomy? Consider this one: “Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what human beings are, and that they are not able to dispute with those that are stronger. The more words, the more vanity” (6:10). Something tells me there’s no secret LP of The Byrds chanting these warm little ditties in their bright and festive 60’s get-ups.
Despite the sad strains of the poet, however, we Christian folk have a little more to work with when it comes to the Biblical tradition. Namely, Ecclesiastes is but a smaller shard of charcoaled glass in the much more grandiose and opulent mosaic that is laid out for us as the “centerpiece” of our human purpose: Oxford scholar Oliver O’Donovan professes that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the focal point of Christian moral deliberation and of our entire existence.
For one, when Jesus is raised from the dead, this serves as a kind of vindication of his life and ministry. Furthermore, Jesus is our Lord and Maker in human flesh, which means that all human flesh in turn, is also vindicated by this life and ministry.
We, persons, are never permitted to un-do what God has done, so we’re stuck with Easter as a moral and theological claim. This isn’t some singular man who got lucky and managed to hoodwink the Grim Reaper, but an all-along plan that God has always meant from before the beginning, before anything that belongs in the human category. Jesus’ resurrection is ours, and all of creation gets to join in the trumpet fanfare.
Because of this Easter reality, we see a glimpse of our actual destiny as persons, which doesn’t look anything like the grained cat video of ongoing sulk or even the plucky strivings of ambitious go-getters. The latter example touches on a crucial point: it’s been a pretty regular conclusion that because of this happy Easter news, we, the Children of God, are commissioned to make that bold new reality happen through our ongoing progress and constant persistence. I’m reminded of a hymn that comes from the diverse collection of the Church of Scotland Hymnary No. 4, Nicaraguan in origin:
Sent by the Lord am I;
My hands are ready now
To make the earth a place
In which the kingdom comes.
The angels cannot change
A world of hurt and pain
Into a world of love,
Of justice and of peace.
It is meant to be a hymn of commission, and it touches on the significance of pro-activity in a life of discipleship. But for our purposes here, we do not make the Earth a place in which the Kingdom comes: that’s God’s job. We’re not capable of turning the world into a place of love, justice, and peace because yes, we’re mortal, but secondly, we don’t really know what that world would look like, as this is God’s action and God’s vision.
When we speak of moving into an Easter reality, we hear today on the Day of Ascension from the lips of Jesus that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” With such a proclamation, we can turn away from a bleak purposelessness, but in equal measure, also forget about doing this fulfillment with our mission benefits and charitable conquests. This is not to disparage loving one’s neighbor or living a life worthy of the calling we have received: it is merely suggesting that God gets to say what this fulfillment looks like.
As Jesus ascends to the Father, it becomes clear that the fully human man who just recently gobbled down a plateful of monkfish is also a member of the Trinity, and that this Trinity is realizing for us the plans that God has had all along: that we might live in the fullness of God’s Kingdom, signified as the Already and Not Yet.
Do not despair, do not presume. God has determined that we will transcend our mortal coil through the activity of God in the person of Jesus, and in the meantime, we get to delight in the world because it is God’s covenant partner. To consider the future, this is not a mere restoration or perfection of what already has been, but a wondrous unveiling of what God has been doing all along: fulfilling all that has been said, as we’ve never seen it before.
The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg tells us that this movement towards our good destiny is not so much a goal that must finally be achieved, but an act of trust that this Christ in the Ascension isn’t kidding when he claims that “I am sending upon you what my Father promised.”
The psalmist closes us with a benediction as we feast on the nourishment and grace that only God is able to provide: Wait on the Lord, and be of good courage.