Tragicomical History

Linda Bongiorno
Monday 18 November 2019

Readings: Isaiah 65:7-25; Luke 21:5-19

According to William Hazlitt, English essayist of 200 years ago, Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they might have been.

Laughter and tears, joy and sadness, comedy and tragedy – these do mark the human experience, and they are both found in the Bible, and in today’s readings.  Our readings today are both visions of what may be coming.  Isaiah’s vision is one of beauty and hope.  Luke’s is painful and fearful.  Let’s look more closely at this double vision.

According to Luke, Jesus speaks of the future in fearful terms.  He envisages a time of destruction for the Temple in Jerusalem, an end to its splendour.  But this seems to be part of greater upheaval.  Nations will go to war with each other; nature itself will be destructive through earthquakes; human and earthly action will combine in causing famines and plagues.  The world will suffer pain, hunger, violence and enmity.  At a personal level Jesus’ disciples will also be under attack, besieged by false prophets, persecuted by authorities, betrayed by friends, even by family, hated by all.

This is a grim vision of the future, one whose dominant note is tragedy.  Nature and human oppression will conspire to put immense pressure on the whole world and on Jesus’ followers.  It will be a time of huge suffering.  But through this pain, there may be a very hard-won victory.  v. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.  The world may be a post-apocalyptic waste, the stage may be littered with the dead, but the faithful few may survive and find blessing.

This is not far from Shakespeare’s vision in Hamlet, or Antony and Cleopatra, or any of his tragedies and many of his histories.  And this is well summed-up by contemporary essayist Terry Eagleton:
Tragedy is concerned with what, if anything, survives when humanity has been hacked down to almost nothing.  Whatever residue then remains, whatever still refuses to give way, is what will assuredly be built upon.
(If you are taking EN3141 Tragedy in the Age of Shakespeare and have an exam on Thursday 12 December at 9:30 am in the Arts Lecture Theatre, I can email you that quote later – just let me know.)

But what of the other vision, from the Old Testament, given to Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus?  It has a completely different feel.  In this new heavens and new earth, people live full, long lives, and die at a ripe old age; there is enough to eat, enough good shelter in which to live; the economics are just – no-one will sell their labour cheaply to a powerful master.  There will be no pain, no violence, no destruction, no distress, no tears.  In a celebrated image, the lamb will not need to flee the wolf, a carnivorous predator, but they shall feed together – lions too will become vegetarian.  And at the heart of this peaceful community of creation is God, delighting in this flourishing, hearing and answering his creatures, inviting us to rejoice in this vision of what the new heavens and earth could be.

This is not far from Shakespeare’s vision in the comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Love’s Labour’s Lost or perhaps especially, All’s Well that Ends Well.  These plays end with marriages, albeit not of a wolf and lamb.  But the marriages signify not only joy and delight but harmony, union, a cosmic celebration of community, of peace.

What to make of this double vision?  I suppose we can recognise that both visions spring from the realities of history.  Yes, the world does contain violence, war, earthquake and disease, hunger and persecution.  And all of us can face significant times of trial.  Students share with me, in confidence, profoundly difficult experiences not dissimilar from Jesus’ vision, and they can at times feel in the midst of tragedy which will not get better.  But there is hope in the world too – there are always signs of life, of justice, of renewal, far from the headlines perhaps.  And University life has also more than a touch of the comic too, of Isaiah’s vision of delight, of harmonious community.  In two weeks time, at graduation ceremonies, times of delight, of enjoyment of the work of our hands, we will create something akin to a new heavens and a new earth.

We are part then of a tragicomical history. How should we sift these elements?  How should we weigh up these visions, both scriptural, both making a call upon our lives?  Well, I think Christianity tends to go wrong when it denies one or the other.

The usual mistake is to deny the comedy.  Christian faith and practice is often focussed on the tragic.  It sees sin everywhere, believes human nature to be totally depraved, sees no goodness in the world, which is an entirely fallen history.  We are guilty, and our guilt is deserved, and God’s judgment of us as reprobate is just.  Christmas and Easter fall away into insignificance.  What matters is the cross.  Jesus’ death by crucifixion is the central action of God in the world, and the place where the tragedy of our lives is revealed, condemned and judged.  Sermons focus on the blood of the lamb in Christ’s sacrifice, but rarely remember the lamb lying down with the wolf.

This emphasis is always there in Christianity, but perhaps at its strongest in medieval Catholicism (and its contemporary versions) and Calvinism.  There’s been quite a lot of it in Scotland.  It’s connected to the destruction of the statues which would have adorned this chapel before 1559.  I spend time with people who can only envisage God as a powerful judge who sees all we do with our minds and our bodies, disapproves of most of it, and persuades us to expect a tragic outcome.  It’s a tunnel vision with no light at the end – and I sometimes think that atheism is healthier than fearing such a god.

But Christianity can also go wrong when it lurches to the pole of contented complacency.  God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.  This world is progressing nicely.  People are being lifted out of poverty, technology is making our lives wonderful, and climate change is just a little blip which those clever boffins in Universities will solve in a year or two.  As for suffering and death, they’re not really real.  Death is nothing at all.  This earth is temporary, and everything will be hunky-dory in the world to come, to which without doubt we’re all heading.

This emphasis is always there in Christianity, but perhaps at its strongest in liberal Protestantism, or in University Chaplaincies where we are paid by the secular institution to pray at graduations and give a spiritual tick to the moral endeavours of education.  The problem is that denying the tragedy means that we don’t know what to do with Jesus, with his fleshliness, his challenging teaching, his encounter with evil, his sacrifice, his pain and his death.  And we don’t know what to do with the overwhelming suffering which has been, such as the Holocaust, and almost definitely will be, through climate change.

There’s a Beatles song which captures this beautifully.  In Getting Better, Paul McCartney sings:
I’ve got to admit it’s getting better
A little better all the time
But in the background, John Lennon sings back: (It can’t get no worse)
A tragicomedy in three lines.

An authentic faith then is open to tragedy and comedy.  It recognises that pain and suffering are real, that loyalty will be tested, that God’s love is found in the self-giving of his son in death.  But it also hopes that the cross is not the last word, but that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, that we are on the way to peace, joy, harmony and consummation, that laughter is always breaking in.  The image on the cover of the order of service shows this: the cross rooted in the darkness, but rising to light and life in the heavenly city.

Armistead Maupin, the comic novelist, has a character say, The only difference between comedy and tragedy is where you end the story.  The story of the world, and of the lives of us all has not yet ended.  But even so, for me, it has to be comedy which is the stronger of these twins.  In a world which has emerged from the loving purpose of the divine, I cannot help but believe that this is a Universe whose destiny is good, and that despite all the suffering, we are accompanied by love.

This is not far from Shakespeare’s vision in the histories Henry V or Richard II.  Not just one damn thing after another, but an interpretation of what happened in the light of our destiny.
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—
(Could I point out that I checked on this quotation from a Sparks Notes webpage which helpfully offered this paraphrase:
This should show us that there’s a God in heaven who’s always guiding us in the right direction, however often we screw up—
If you are studying EN4344 Early English Romance Comedy: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries please do not ask me to email the link to you.)

If you share that basic trust in this divine comedy, then perhaps you’ll share my conviction that this comedy draws us onwards to act to let the laughter come, to work for long and fruitful lives, to make the lambs and wolves lie down together.  And that we can do this in the history we make of our own lives, our community and our precious planet earth.
Hazlitt said that we are the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they might have been.
But surely we are also struck by the difference between how things are and how they might be.  And if so, we can be part of God’s creation of new heavens and a new earth.


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