Lent: Past The Pale Of Calculation
The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has written a poem entitled Meditations of Mr. Cogito on Redemption. The title is significant because "cogito" is Latin for "I think," and the word was made famous in western philosophy by Rene Descartes in his statement Cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." The word stands then for the intellect, for an outlook on life that raises human thought to the highest value: thought is the proof and measure of our existence.
The poem's title announces that we will hear a thinking person's meditations on Christ's redemptive work. And what does Mr. Cogito think of the ways that God chooses to redeem us fallen creatures? Not very much:
one should not descend low fraternize with blood he should not have sent his son it was better to reign in a baroque palace made out of marble clouds on a throne of terror with a scepter of death1
This is the perspective of someone who calculates effective action by the standards of the world, someone who thinks in the most precise terms about power against power, greater force against lesser force. It is someone who, like Peter, is perplexed and upset by a Christ who teaches "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31).
Lent is the season that shatters the meditations of Mr. Cogito, of Peter and everyone like them, which from time to time includes us all. God decides to "fraternize with blood," even to know blood, to know violence and pain and terror, to experience first hand the injustice and brutality of life. Meanwhile, it is we humans who dream of "a baroque palace made out of marble clouds," not just for God but for ourselves. Thus, the other day I saw an article on a lottery winner who, having won millions, had now retreated into her fantasy of the good life, filling every wish and desire of her isolated heart. It is a fantasy that resonates in many people who are overcome by this crushing world. Who among us would not confess to sometimes wanting to escape, if only we had the means to? But Lent reminds us that God works past the pale of our calculation. God, who could have given us up for lost, has in Christ entered this suffering world so that we can give up our fantasies of escape, so that we can deal with this world as it actually is, with all its terror and all its holy possibilities. And that is exactly what we do when we take up our cross and follow Christ.
Thomas H. Troeger Illiff School of Theology Denver, CO
1. In David Curzon, The Gospels in Our Image: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry Based on Biblical Texts (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995), p. 225.