When Reconciliation Was the Most Obvious Thing in the World: An Excerpt from Robert Farrar Capon’s The Youngest Day

From Chapter 14, “The Funeral,” in Robert Farrar Capon’s collection of seasonal musings, “The Youngest […]

Mockingbird / 7.22.19

From Chapter 14, “The Funeral,” in Robert Farrar Capon’s collection of seasonal musings, “The Youngest Day”:

Late one evening I was with a group of people who were having an extended series of nightcaps after the funeral of a common friend. We’d all known him well, and as the night wore on and tongues got looser, the conversation circled back to old Oscar. I say circled back because earlier in the evening we’d regaled each other with a series of fond and complimentary tales about him and then wandered off to other subjects. When we came to him the second time, though, someone’s casual remark about not wanting to get up the next morning with a big head turned us to the subject of Oscar’s drinking. (It wasn’t really all that bad; but on the other hand, Oscar’s liver wasn’t all that good, so it got him in the end.)

The fascinating thing about the conversation was that we found ourselves sitting there happily rehashing not only his tippling (we used to find his empties in our desk drawers) but even the resultant liver trouble that jaundiced his whole outlook in the last years. Our first, pious chitchat about his good qualities had, consciously or unconsciously, simply avoided all our most recent experience of him. We’d confined ourselves to half an Oscar—a prettied-up version of a man we all knew to be other, and less, than the one we were praising. It wasn’t till the second round of Oscar stories that anyone realized just how fake the first one had been. Suddenly everybody relaxed. We finally had a whole man to talk about and, for the first time, a chance to let the human being he really was rest in peace.

As I think about that night, it strikes me that it provides a handy, if limited, analogue to the day of judgment. First of all, Oscar was really being judged—and accurately. Second, he was being judged in our remembrance—in our re-cognition of him out of the love we all had for him. Third, that love was the overriding consideration: we all wanted a vindication of Oscar, not a condemnation. But last of all, that vindication could not occur until we stopped the pious fakery by which we tried to achieve it earlier in the evening. We really had to judge him—and all of him, good and bad alike—as he really was. Our love could not be operative for him until it had faced the whole man. But once it did, his reconciliation was the most obvious thing in the world. His bad liver and grouchy disposition were no longer a problem for him that night: death had effectively absolved him of all such inconveniences. And in our re-cognizing judgment of him, they were no problem for us either: we were finally free to hold him with all his faults in the proportions our love insisted on. And with no inconvenient, self-propelled Oscar to come around the next morning and bellyache.

Like all analogies, of course, it breaks down. But even its collapse is edifying: our remembrance of him—our re-collecting word spoken over his history—is not like Christ’s. It is not the Word’s word with a bark to it that wakes the dead into real resurrection; it is only a human, mental word that does little more than fix up our own insides. But within those limitations it works the same way: it comes to Oscar in judgment out of love; it wills not retribution but vindication; and it achieves that vindication by seeing everything just as it was, but nevertheless re-cognizing it as what our love would have it be. His bad liver isn’t forgotten. All the grim days it gave him are known for what they really were. But because they’re over now for him, we remember them only under the rubric of the glorious scar: in our reconciling memory, they’re held as a funny story about the Boss’s embarrassed and totally unconvincing explanation of why empty vodka bottles kept turning up in his trash can.

If Christ’s judgment is anything like that at all, it will be—in fact it already is—a great day for the world. It is indeed rigged; but it is rigged only out of love. Even though the fix is in from the start, the fix involves not inattention but the setting of not less than everything in the proportions his love insists upon. But above all it is utterly successful: as Oscar on that evening had no power to prevent his reconciliation in our mental recollection of him, so nothing in the universe has any power to prevent reconciliation by Christ’s real remembering of it in the resurrection.

Which is—interestingly and gratifyingly—the very thing the man said:

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38, 39)

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