Present and Extraordinary
Despite our coping mechanisms of choice, fear and weariness are often common sentiments across much of the globe, laden with a sense of uncertainty. People deal en mass with losses of all kinds and the turbulent emotions that come with losing ground. For many in the affluent West who have lived with mindsets of comfort and feasts of resources, economic downturn is a sudden and disorienting shift. For others, hard times simply get much harder.
Writing in a century with its own fears and famines, Blaise Pascal took note of the human capacity for a dangerous kind of escapism when fears loom large and hope remains distant. He saw a general disassociation with the present, a perpetual anticipation of the future or recollection of the past, which kept life itself at bay. "So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours and do not think of the only one which belongs to us," he wrote. "And so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us... So we never live, but we hope to live."(1)
Vincent van Gogh, Still Life With a Basket of Crocuses, oil on canvas, 1887.
Of course, whether in times of scarcity or in times of plenty, the temptation to mentally dismiss ourselves from the present moment is quite real. It is always possible to live with eyes intent on something better in the future or with a nostalgic gaze on the past and all that once was. But in times of discomfort, crisis, or shortage, the choice to wander in times other than the present strikes us more as self-preservation or necessity than temptation, an essential coping mechanism in the midst of pain—and so we dismiss ourselves from the present all the more freely. Whether to daydream of better times or to look fearfully into the future, we leave the harrowing realities of the present to hope for something more, to escape from the weariness of now, to remember something better. But no matter our reason, when the future alone is our end and life is preoccupied with what once was or what might be, it is something less than living. It is to embrace despair.
With the season of Ordinary Time upon the Christian church, opportunities to comfort a fearful world in the midst of instability and loss are filled with images of a King without affluence, a Son who embraced anguish and seeming failure, and a God among us without the glory and prosperity he might have had if he stayed away. In this season, the church remembers one who prayed through agony, not abandoning the present though he was more able than you or I to do so, while sweating drops of blood alone as his friends laid exhausted from sorrow. The church's care toward an anxious culture is one that can show living is possible—even if far less affluently—with the ensuring presence of this king among us now.
The church presents a living history marked by expressions, prophecies, stories, and assurances uttered in the very midst of famines, warfare, plagues, exile, and losses of every kind—no less than the death of God himself. These voices remind us that the antidote to fear is love, when it is the perfect love that casts out despair and weariness. The stories of scripture give image after image of remnants of the faithful praying in the midst of fear and trial, setting aside the self-preserving instincts of famine to love their neighbors abundantly, and taking the trusting risks to bring the whole of life under the care of Christ even now—the object of faith's mystery: the one who died, and rose, and promises to come again. By his extraordinary life, the church is enabled to ask of every ordinary moment: What if it's true that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, can separate us from the perfect love of God in Jesus Christ even now?
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees (Charleston: Biblio Bazaar, 2007), 87-88.