Rejoice: The Absurd Command, Part 3

The conclusion of a three-part series. Read the others here. Beloved, we are always in […]

Ian Olson / 4.22.19

The conclusion of a three-part series. Read the others here.

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves:
The decorative manias we obey
Die in grimaces round us every day,
Yet through their tohu-bohu comes a voice
Which utters an absurd command – Rejoice.

– Auden, “In Sickness and in Health”

This Lenten season we found ourselves called into the wasteland — a place remembered in Scripture as a place of endurance, yes, but also idyllically as the place where God’s fatherly love manifested itself: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms… To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them” (Hosea 11:1, 3-4).

It’s the same for us today. God enacts a vow (note the marital overtones in the title of Auden’s poem) in our barrenness. That covenantal speech-act echoes in time the vow he took upon himself in electing to be our Redeemer, the final vow encompassing all the vows we have broken. God’s eternality makes contemporary that primal self-determination of his in all subsequent moments of history; that eternal past stretches out and unites itself to an eternal now. And for Auden, that now and that vow are consummated in the absurd command: “Rejoice.”

It is a rejoicing that spurns the warped mirrors and the will-to-power that define so much of the world and our courses within it. It is “absurd” because foolish transgressors of the Law are told to exult in spite of their being foolish transgressors. On the face of it, nothing has changed. So why rejoice? Because heeding this command opens an utterly new horizon; not only a new perspective but a new avenue. In rejoicing, we participate in the struggle. “Rejoice” in this stanza is a fiat, producing what it commands, like “Let there be light.” It’s an invitation: the director of the drama drafting a new scene to improvise in, drawing us into our roles, on the way to the selves we will be.

Hosea connects these themes of the wilderness, renewal, and marital vows and arrives at a promise that is absurdly disproportionate with Israel’s wrongdoing:

Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.

From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor (lit., “trouble”) a door of hope…

On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. … And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (2:14–20)

We likewise are being allured to follow the Bridegroom into the wilderness: the chaos of our present, where nothing seems to be working the way it ought, where we don’t know who we can trust or lean on to help us navigate the wastes, much less cope with our wrong steps. So allured, we find the stillness we’ve needed to hear the Absurd. And when we listen, those things that routinely master us no longer captivate as they had before: our muscle memory of disordered self-medication dissipates; that phantom limb of sinful longing becomes sensible as what it is — “There’s nothing there!”; their names become distasteful on our lips as we begin to recognize their enticements are empty. Not all at once, and not with absolute finality, but as a different course that can suddenly be taken, the discovery of which enlivens our sojourning.

(I am in no position to flaunt my faithfulness in this regard; I am cut from the same cloth as Israel. But this promise isn’t contingent on my failures, because it doesn’t originate in any way with me.)

In this tohu-bohu we can witness the valley of our trouble open into a door of heretofore unimaginable hope. A door, for it is a narrow entrance, opening onto small, new ways of being, delicious to each us individually as it unlocks from our own small idiosyncrasies. Who knows? It may even look like feeling safe for the first time bringing your mannequin girlfriend to a party. Do not despise these small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10) — rejoice in hope. For hope projects towards its object and its future attainment, and the God-Man brings that future near.

When God stoops to ruined sinners and lifts us up, he reckons with the sullied webs of wrong we inflict and remunerate upon each other. It reckons with our multitudinous failures but does not consign us to be irremediable failures — only irremediably ourselves. One of the most difficult things to assent to isn’t the Virgin Birth, or the nature of God, or the inscrutable movements of his providence, but that I remain myself. I remain myself in my hundred strains of stupidity, in the intractable givenness of all that is so irritatingly me, much of which is so vital historically to my being I cannot simply repent of it.

Yet I must. Though I cannot excise all I wish I could and remain myself, the only pathway to remaining myself is repentance of that history. Whatever we could keep, we must lose. We do not need the way we are to be excused. We need the way we are to be forgiven, and that in total. Who I have been must undergo death with Jesus Christ if I am to survive, and who I am now must be nourished by the self I will yet be, the self whom I am already regarded as in Christ. Our lives continually swirl between the past we disown, the present we struggle through, and the future we are promised, and the graced interaction between the three yields the renewed selves we exist as now and grow into. Being always in the wrong supplies us the mercy we need to live with ourselves in the present. For God anticipates and counts on our being the way we are long before we ever arrive at that surprise. He comes to those who are always in the wrong and is not shocked to find them in the wrong. Auden’s words urge us to stop driving our thorns further into our flesh as though that would commend ourselves to our maker. We are already commended in Christ.

So allow yourself to fully feel the failure to be everything you had thought you ought to be — even all you objectively ought to have been, had sworn to be. Name your specific wrongs and then name your overall, comprehensive wrongness. Then close your eyes to all the traces of your failure in the world and envision the unabashed, gleeful acceptance God envelops you within precisely through his absurd command. It is in this desert, this tohu-bohu of the stupid lives we handle so clumsily, that the goodness and generative mercy of God speaks into existence new possibilities. We rejoice in hope, for our repentance speaks the absolute and holy divide between what we have failed to be but leaves us standing and still ourselves — more than we ever have been, and yearning to be yet more. I fall so short of what I as a creature should be, yet I am the only I that God desires. As are you. As Kierkegaard puts it in The Sickness unto Death, “the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God.” We who are always in the wrong are the only ones sought by God.

I resolve, therefore, to resist the inborn inclination towards what Jack Antonoff calls “the narcissism of being too sad.” Here in the wasteland, I will rejoice. Yes, I am a sinner: a disappointment to myself, and, more egregiously, all too frequently to my family, my friends, and all whose lives are closely linked with mine. And I will remain so for some time; until I shuffle off this dented chrysalis and enter into my inheritance. Then I shall be reconciled to my ideal self. We will not greet one another, but he will be me, and I will be amazed at how natural it suddenly feels to no longer be animated by animus and anxiety. And my Lord will issue the command once again, but it will no longer seem absurd.