Carolyn Gordon Tate, a major figure in the literary renaissance of the 20th century American South, once wrote Flannery O’Connor of the impact that her conversion to Catholicism had had on her writing. As Miss O’Connor recalled in a letter, “Mrs. Tate told me that after she became a Catholic she felt she could use her eyes and accept what she saw for the first time, she didn’t have to make a new universe for each book but could take the one she found.” Catholicism, Carolyn Gordon Tate recognized, was realism. Catholicism means seeing things as they are. Catholicism means finding within the grittiness of reality the path God is taking through history for the salvation of the world. Lent is a good time to be reminded of these truths.
The relentless grittiness of Lent begins at the beginning, with the imposition of ashes (preferably in abundance) and the reminder that we are the dust to which we shall return. Then we come to the First Sunday of Lent, when, each year, one of the Synoptic evangelists, Mark, Matthew, or Luke, focuses our attention on the temptation of Jesus — a gritty business that begins in a gritty place, the Judean wilderness. Mark, as is his wont, keeps the narrative spare; all we are told is that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, amidst “wild beasts” and angels. Matthew, the evangelical portraitist, fills out the story by rendering the temptations in their most familiar sequence: the temptation to indulge the flesh, by turning stones into bread; the temptation to test divine providence and divine favor, by Jesus throwing himself from the pinnacle of the Temple; the temptation to worldly power, achieved through the worship of a false deity.
Luke’s account of the temptations, however, drives the story even deeper into the gritty soil of history by inverting the sequences of the second and third temptations: the last and gravest temptation takes place in Jerusalem, the holy city to which Luke’s entire Gospel is oriented. Here, in Jerusalem, Jesus faces the temptation to refuse the destiny the Father has appointed for him — to be the world’s savior by stripping himself of himself on the cross. Here, truly, we are at history’s hinge-point, its crossroads. What will Jesus do? Gianfranco Ravasi puts it neatly in his commentary on Luke’s temptation narrative: Jesus, “respecting the sovereign freedom of the plan of salvation to which he has been devoted, pronounces his definitive ‘Yes’ to the Father and abandons himself completely to his destiny.” Not as an abstract matter, but here, in this place and at this time: here, in Jerusalem, amidst the history with which Luke began his Christmas narrative, with its references to the time when Augustus was emperor and “Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2).
One of the greatest artistic evocations of the grittiness of Lent is Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting, The Procession to Calvary, which I first saw in 2006 at the Museum of Art History in Vienna. It’s a large work, 5-and-a-half-feet by 4-feet, featuring hundreds of small figures, with the equally small figure of Christ carrying the cross in the center of the painting. Bruegel included certain familiar motifs in rendering the scene: the holy women and St. John are in the right foreground, comforting Mary; the vast majority of those involved, concerned about quotidian things, are clueless about the drama unfolding before their eyes. What is utterly striking about The Procession to Calvary, however, is that we are in Europe, not Judea: Christ is carrying the cross through a typical Flemish landscape, complete with horses, carts, oxen and a windmill. Christ is carrying the cross through history—right through the grittiness of everyday life.
Peter Bruegel the Elder would, I expect, want us to understand that the “procession to Calvary” is taking place in our midst, too. He would be right to do so. Lent is a privileged time for recovering the sight and the commitment that let us see and enter the passion play going on around us.