Thursday, March 3, 2016

"The Prison Church"

Daily(ish) blogging in Lent - Day Fourteen 
In Chapter 39, “The Prison Church—Blind Leaders of the Blind,”  in his novel, Resurrection, first published in 1899, Leo Tolstoy describes in great detail a Christian worship service as it took place in a prison. The prisoners were directed there. All attended together. There was chanting and smells and the jangling of prisoners’ chains. The whole thing was rather mystical. It seemed from the account that the priest, in spite of his own doubts, at least intended to give the prisoners some  sort of psychological relief. When it all ended, however, and the kissing of crosses and hands was complete, is was in reality a stressful exercise for everyone who had been involved. There was a certain sense of “going through the motions,” that left everyone a bit untouched by anything let alone the Holy Spirit.

More than stressful, “none of those present,” Tolstoy narrates, “from the inspector down to Maslova, seemed conscious of the fact that this Jesus, whose name the priest repeated such a great number of times…had forbidden the very things that were being done there…He had forbidden not only to judge, to imprison, to torment, to execute men…but had prohibited any kind of violence, saying that He had come to give freedom to the captives…No one seemed to realize that the gilt cross with the enamel medallions at the ends, which the priest held out to the people to be kissed, was nothing but the emblem of that gallows on which Christ had been executed for denouncing just what was going on here. That these priests, who imagined they were eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, did in reality eat and drink His flesh and His blood, but not as wine and bits of bread, but by ensnaring ‘these little ones’ with whom He identified Himself, by depriving them of the greatest blessings and submitting them to most cruel torments, and by hiding from men the tidings of great joy which He had brought. That thought did not enter into the mind of any one present.” 

Tolstoy points to the contradiction. In the midst of the reading of scriptures, the proclamation of the gospels, and the glitter of the cross, somehow unknowingly(?), the “good news” for the poor and the imprisoned, the liberation of the crucified, the Resurrection for which the first disciples burned with desire, was concealed, repressed, forgotten. 

All that holy fire for the Kingdom (tongues and wind and flames!) was put-out, smothered by the curtain in the temple, no longer torn in two, but again used to hide, to suffocate. 

The eschaton for which the first Christians had hoped had been displaced to the mystical present. 

"Real presence." What more is there left to hope for? The desire for liberation was disfigured, unacknowledged. The Church who once gathered, aflame in the Spirit, intoxicated by desire, longing, hoping, praying “Thy Kingdom Come!”—a holy prayer for an oppressed people, a prayer that belongs to the Lord; had been transformed into this. Incense and chains. 

Christian worship was happening in prison. Not a word about emancipation. 

Could this really be Christ’s Church? 

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