One can easily get the impression from films like Dragonheart and Pocahontas that pre-Christian paganism was an utterly jolly thing. The pre-Christian world of these myths is a world of buffed-out-yet-sensitive men living in a matriarchal, earth-affirming culture of powerful women healers in touch with their sexuality who intuitively grasp the rhythms of nature as they rejoice in the simple pleasures of wine, love and song. The coming of Christianity into such a world is an invasion of killjoys into a party. Who needs Heaven when you have the happiness of water and rock, of sunshine, of singing bird and all the joys of earth?
The dream of making earth enough is a very ancient one. Beginning with the fall of Adam, the constant theme of human history is, in essence, the struggle between the desire for mere earth and the call to look beyond the earth to Heaven. The path which lies before those who choose the former has never been more accurately sketched than by the second chapter of Wisdom.
Wisdom 2 charts the inevitable logic of placing all your eggs in an earthly basket. It shows not only what happens to those who do so, it shows what they must do to others as well if they remain consistent with their first principles and don’t repent. The chapter is prefaced by Wisdom 1:16, which bluntly tells us that the author is describing those who “made a covenant” with death. What does he mean?
He means, in essence, that to pin your hopes on this world is to book a ticket on the Titanic. She’s big. She’s beautiful. She’s going to die. There is not a thing you are looking at now that is not going to be dead or broken. Yet, knowing this, paganism still casts its hopes on creation rather than Creator and covers up the despair of the world with gassy philosophy. The despairing worldlings of verses 1-9 essentially say “I don’t know if there’s life after death so I’m dead certain there’s no life after death. I don’t know where I come from or why I’m here but I do know the world is a tough place and sex and song are really nice. So whoever gets the gold gets the goods. Let’s rock and roll!”
Now “getting the gold” is not a pretty business. It demands certain…. compromises. But if you’ve chosen to live in a universe of despair in which God is nowhere in sight, it soon becomes fairly easy to make such compromises. And so the logic continues. “Let us oppress the needy just man.” Fat lot of good his justice ever did him, the dumb sap! And so the one dedicated to the world gets the worldly goods and loses his soul in the process.
But conscience continues to prick him. And he resents it. So the logic continues to today’s reading: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings.” The commitment to despair becomes a rooted life principle and one to which the worldly will sacrifice anything, including another person and especially another person whose life highlights his despair. “After all,” they cynically observe, “If the just one be the Son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes” (v. 18; Matt. 27:43).
Jesus is the ultimate Just Man and the Son of God. And God did deliver him. But he delivered him through death, not from it. This is what so confused and frightened the disciples in today’s gospel. They thought that maybe, at long last, God would fulfill the dream of making earth enough for us, with Jesus as a political ruler and them at his right and left hands. But God did not do so, for we, being in the image of God, are too much for earth. And so Jesus made a better way and transformed death from the hole the worldling thought it was into a door to a universe of Joy.
“Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan,” said Chesterton, “is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Pagan pleasures are ultimately tragic because they exist in a universe of despair. Christian tragedy, even the tragedy of the Cross, is ultimately glorious because it exists, as Tolkien said, in a universe of “joy, joy poignant as grief beyond the walls of the world.”