Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
[This essay was first presented at our annual gathering last month. This is the first part of three, and in the next couple days, I expect to post the second and third parts.]
And our hope of you is steadfast knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation (2 Cor. 1:7).
In a world that is ever plagued by deceit and cruelty, suffering seems unavoidable. Yet Paul in this verse implies that suffering is optional: one may choose to partake of the sufferings or refuse to partake; one may accept or reject suffering. How is it possible to refuse to suffer when loss, injury, abuse, and death come to everyone? Not only does Paul advocate partaking of the sufferings, he makes being "of the consolation" contingent upon it. Assuming Paul is correct that salvation follows a partaking of suffering and this partaking is not automatic but must be chosen, the meaning of the phrase "partakers of the sufferings" is worth looking into.
A feeling of diminishment, whether from loss or the fear of loss, comes into every life, and we are free to respond in any number of ways. Paul advocates for a particular handling of these feelings, in such a way that we are prepared to receive the consolation of Christ, and he also implies that a contrary approach does not lead to receiving Christ. Examples of each will illustrate the difference between the two, and so, I will present the approach of first-generation Friends by looking at some passages from George Fox's Journal that document his early years. Before doing so, however, I'll present a diametrically opposed approach to that of the first Friends. This contrasting ethos is embodied in Roman Carnival revelers of the nineteenth century. Though these two approaches differ, the challenge that each group faced was the same, and is, in fact, universal.
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It was once a custom among the inhabitants of Rome to celebrate Carnival in the time before Lent. The word "Carnival" is drawn from its Latin root carnem levare and means "remove the meat." The Latin root has also given us the word "carnal," which is used in Scripture to signify that which is not spiritual; "fleshly" and "worldly" being synonyms. The distinction is made clear by early Friend Edward Burrough in the following passage in which he refers to Paul's use of the word "carnal":
If they be not carnal, then they are spiritual...things seen...are temporal and carnal; and what is temporal is not eternal, nor spirit. The apostle speaks of "carnal weapons," 2 Cor. 10:4, and "carnal ordinances," Heb. 9:10 (Works, 3:78).
Carnival was a time of self-indulgent and thoughtless behavior, a time of personal display, extravagance, masquerades, contests, and parties. On the final night of Carnival, Romans crowded into the main thoroughfare of their city to play a game called "Moccoletti" in which each celebrant lit and carried a candle. The goal of Moccoletti was to extinguish another's flame while keeping one's own burning. Any ploy, subterfuge, or fraud was to be expected in this contest, as there were no rules. Charles Dickens in Pictures from Italy describes the scene:
Then everybody present has but one engrossing object, that is, to extinguish other people's candles and to keep his own alight; and everybody: man, woman, or child, gentleman or lady, prince or peasant, native or foreigner yells and screams, and roars incessantly, as a taunt to the subdued, "Senza Moccolo, Senza Moccolo!" (Without a light! Without a light!) until nothing is heard but a gigantic chorus of those two words, mingled with peals of laughter.
At midnight with the ringing of church bells throughout the city, Moccoletti was over; Carnival was finished and Lent began. At that moment, the highest contrast in behavior could be observed: the frenzy of Moccoletti vanished into the somber season of Lent. Dickens describes the abrupt changeover in this way:
When in the wildest enthusiasm of the cry, and fullest ecstasy of the sport, the Ave Maria rings from the church steeples, and the Carnival is over in an instant—put out like a taper with a breath!
Since first learning many years ago of this Roman Carnival practice, I have thought of it as a metaphor for the spiritually darkened, routine happenings in our world that result from a prevailing "carnal" or worldly approach to being alive; and conversely, Lent, which immediately follows Carnival, as its antithesis. Lent occurs in the 40 days preceding Easter and is a time of socially enforced asceticism, in which participants refrain from self-indulgence, reflect upon their misdeeds, and thus come to feel a heightened sense of personal emptiness, absence, and need. It is a time of penitence, of thoughtful self-scrutiny. That the two seasons of Carnival and Lent abut is no accident; the stark difference between their respective worldviews is accentuated by their proximity: the natural, mundane life followed by a disciplined restraint that would prepare for some new and better way of life, a way yet unknown to either the carnal-minded or the ascetic.
(end of part one)
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