This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 21:5–19:
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here— the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
“Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
Today’s reflection will be a bit different than usual. Rather than jump directly into the Gospel reading, I’d like to share a rather unique experience that we had last night at the theater, which my wife and I rarely attend. However, this was a single-day engagement at the Pantages with the Fellowship for Performing Arts to stage The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece. This was one play performance I could not miss.
In my Sunday reflections, I often refer back to arguments made by Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. The book is a brilliant, devastating, and entertaining disposition on spiritual warfare, and comprehensive as well. When I happened across news that it would be staged as live theater, I immediately took the opportunity to buy a ticket, although I was not at all sure how it would be staged. After all, the book consists of letters from a demon undersecretary to his nephew, a junior tempter with a new patient in Britain at the start of World War II. It is therefore a series of monologues, which make for great reading but not terribly much action and no dialogue at all.
Director and playwright Max McLean solved the problem by adding in the character of Toadpipe, who does get small mention in the book. While Screwtape (Brent Harris) offered a strenuously physical rendition of his discourses on spiritual warfare, Toadpipe (Anna Reichert in this performance) offers hilarious non-verbal audible responses, mime, and dance to act out what Screwtape commands. It’s a clever, entertaining, and memorable interpretation of Lewis’ seminal work, and it’s almost too brief in the end.
At the end of the performance, McLean led a discussion about the play and his purposes in staging it that was almost as enlightening as the play itself. FPA Theatre is a not-for-profit with a mission to bring the Christian worldview to the stage, both in New York City and throughout the country. As McLean told us, though, that means one has to produce works that entertain as well as instruct, and in that order to be effective. He quoted a famous Broadway producer (whose name didn’t ring with me at all) in saying that the strategy is to “make them laugh — and while their mouths are open, pour in truth.”
However, it’s that truth that McLean wants to emphasize. He noted that the world has lost its sense of sin and guilt, which makes it difficult to connect the Christian message with audiences of late. Works like Lewis’ bridge that gap; FPA Theatre will start an adaptation of The Great Divorce in NYC next month and then take it on the road next year, as well as an adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that McLean promised would discomfort a lot of people.
In his own way, and in a much more public manner than most, McLean is fighting his own spiritual warfare in places where he’s least likely to find appreciation for it. However, the Pantages was packed last night for the performance of The Screwtape Letters, and the audience was enthralled and delighted with what they saw.
It’s this kind of spiritual warfare that comes to mind in the Gospels, including today’s. Although it’s not necessarily a direct reference, Jesus warns of the temporal wars and catastrophes to come, a running theme in Lewis’ book too, as it was written in part during the Battle of Britain and the worst of the war at home. Lewis wrote that those times focus the mind not just on the dangers in this life, but the dangers in the next life as well. We recall our mortality much more readily in the circumstances Jesus describes, which prompts Screwtape to warn his nephew about getting too giddy about war among the humans.
Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless.
It is for this reason that Jesus calls attention to the trials and tribulations preceding the coming of the Lamb. It is not necessary for us to know the time and the place of judgment; indeed, it’s far better that we not know. That way we are fully engaged in preparing for it by living our lives as the Gospel instructs. In that manner, we will open ourselves to the Holy Spirit all the more and be formed well enough to deal with the temporal crises that will arise in our lives. There will be no need to “prepare a defense beforehand” if we have cooperated with the Holy Spirit well enough to allow Him to work through us in the crisis.
Contented worldliness is what keeps us from that cooperation. We find ourselves in the breach of crisis, but when we’re never tested, we often never look at all. “How much better for us,” Lewis has Screwtape muse, “if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!”
The best way to prevent one’s self from falling into that trap is to remember that, as Christians, we are always at risk of falling into sin. When we lose sight of those movements of the spirit and the body, we lose sight of who we truly are and are meant to be — children of God. Jesus spent His entire ministry teaching us the critical necessity of knowing our sinfulness and repenting of it through Him; Lewis wrote his book to warn us of the consequences of failure. That crisis is always before us, whether we recognize it or not.
Speaking of recognition, may I offer my sincere gratitude for FBP Theatre’s ongoing mission and the excellent work of Brent Harris and Anna Reichert last night. By the way, FPA Theatre will make Cincinnati the final destination for 2019, with dates from November 22-24. My friends in Cincinnati would be well advised to take advantage of this opportunity and enjoy an excellent experience. Bring your nephews.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” by Francesco Hayez, 1867. Currently on display at the Gallerie dell’Academia. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.