Ash Wednesday, Armageddon, and Apocalypse
Lent begins this year, as always, with the imposition on worshiper’s foreheads of the ashen remains of burnt palm fronds that at a previous Palm Sunday waved hosannas to the Messiah. The words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are spoken over us. As we hear these words this year the war in Ukraine rages. Many fighting in the conflict have died or will soon die and in time return to dust. No one knows when the carnage and destruction will end, or where the Russian aggression will stop. Some fear this could be the beginning of WW III.
At the same time, we are into the third year of the Covid pandemic which has taken the lives of millions worldwide, having sickened many millions more and drastically altered our lives. Thankfully it is on the wane. Or so we dearly hope. Much of what we in the comfortable Western world assumed was stable from international norms to prices at the grocery store now seems uncertain.
Thirty-eight years ago, the Czech author Milan Kundera wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled The Tragedy of Central Europe. The first paragraph read,
“In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”
Mr. Kundera goes on to ask, what did that man mean by saying he and his compatriots were about to die for their homeland and Europe? He concludes, after a detailed review of history and culture, by asserting that for many ethnic groups living on the periphery of the then USSR under totalitarian puppet regimes (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany) their cultural aspirations caused them to look to the West as a model, but the soul deadening reality of living under autocratic communist rule negated any hope of realizing this desire. Scenarios like the Hungarian revolution occurred in many countries until five years after that essay was published the Soviet empire began to implode.
The current Ukrainian conflict holds the possibility that having had respite from Soviet domination for a generation, the Ukrainian defender’s hope for freedom from tyranny has been deepened and fortified. Whether they will be able to withstand the Russian army’s onslaught on their own is doubtful. So much for the rude return of history to the world stage.
One thing Mr. Kundera alludes to, and then only in passing, is the Judeo-Christian religious influence in Central Europe. It is a common slight of our enlightened, secular, literate and educated class to overlook the role of faith since it may only play a perfunctory role in their own lives, if any at all. However, as others more astute than I have pointed out, what we understand as the ‘West’ would never have come into being without the transmutational work of the Christian church on the heritage of Greece and Rome as well as Jerusalem.
But today much of the West seems to have lost or perhaps discarded its defining Judeo-Christian cultural inheritance. Perhaps the shock of the Russian invasion and war in Ukraine will awaken a renewed appreciation for the foundational values the West was built upon. Absent a great awakening of religious faith and fervor among the people of the West, however, it is unlikely that current appeals to ‘democracy’ will stop the decline of the West’s fortitude and confidence in the face of the likes of Russia and China. The eschatological vision of the Church has always understood human history as apocalyptic, as revelatory. What it reveals is Jesus Christ, without whom we can do nothing.
Milan Kundera ended his essay with the following:
“The real tragedy for Central Europe, then, is not Russia but Europe: this Europe that represented a value so great that the director of the Hungarian News Agency was ready to die for it, and for which he did indeed die. Behind the iron curtain, he did not suspect that the times had changed and that in Europe itself Europe was no longer experienced as a value. He did not suspect that the sentence he was sending by telex beyond the borders of his flat country would seem outmoded and would not be understood.”
Leonard Cohen’s song/poem The Future should provide us added words to ponder as we stagger from one shock after another. Consider, in a few months the SCOTUS may, it is to be hoped, declare the 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade void.
Give me back my broken night My mirrored room, my secret life It's lonely here, There's no one left to torture Give me absolute control Over every living soul And lie beside me, baby That's an order Give me crack and anal sex Take the only tree that's left And stuff it up the hole In your culture Give me back the Berlin wall Give me Stalin and St. Paul I've seen the future, brother It is murder Things are going to slide, slide in all directions Won't be nothing Nothing you can measure anymore The blizzard, the blizzard of the world Has crossed the threshold And it has overturned The order of the soul When they said repent, repent, repent I wonder what they meant You don't know me from the wind You never will, you never did I'm the little Jew Who wrote the Bible I've seen the nations rise and fall I've heard their stories, heard them all But love's the only engine of survival Your servant here, he has been told To say it clear, to say it cold It's over, it ain't going Any further And now the wheels of heaven stop You feel the devil's riding crop Get ready for the future It is murder Things are going to slide Slide in all directions Won't be nothing Nothing you can measure anymore The blizzard, the blizzard of the world Has crossed the threshold And it has overturned The order of the soul When they said repent, repent, repent I wonder what they meant There'll be the breaking of the ancient Western code Your private life will suddenly explode There'll be phantoms There'll be fires on the road And the white man dancing You'll see a woman Hanging upside down Her features covered by her fallen gown And all the lousy little poets Coming round Tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson And the white man dancin' Give me back the Berlin wall Give me Stalin and St. Paul Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima Destroy another fetus now We don't like children anyhow I've seen the future, baby it is murder Things are going to slide, slide in all directions Won't be nothing Nothing you can measure anymore The blizzard, the blizzard of the world Has crossed the threshold And it has overturned The order of the soul When they said repent, repent, repent I wonder what they meant