The loveliest Easter words
For me, the loveliest words in the whole Catholic Easter vigil service come in the long opening proclamation, the Exultet. Those words, in Latin, are “O, felix culpa.” They translate in English as “Oh, happy fault.” Crucifixion, happy?
The point is, without Adam’s sin, the “happy fault,” there would be no crucifixion. And without crucifixion, there would be no resurrection.
Instead of attending Easter service last night, sheltering-in-place, we watched a live staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on YouTube (Andrew Lloyd Webber offered it free for forty-eight hours from Friday through Sunday.) I’d seen the much milder movie version in June 1973, but the stage play was stunning in its intensity and deeply moving in its message. I was swept away by the portrayal of Judas Iscariot, not as a coward and traitor, but as a loyal devotee and faithful adherent to Jesus’s original vision and mission. In the play, he gave Jesus up not because he did not love him, but because he did and could not bear seeing Jesus appear to lose his focus on the poor. During the scene in which Judas recognizes that he will forever bear the blame for Jesus’s death and therefore hangs himself, the words, “O, felix culpa,” came to me. Without betrayal, no death. Without death, no resurrection.
Healing our divisions
As we make our stumbling way through the pandemic, I wonder if someday the coronavirus will be remembered as a “felix culpa,” a happy fault. When we who survive look back, might we see the virus as having healed us of the divisive partisanship, the political and social viruses that beset us now?
If the “cheerleading” continues from the White House podium (Who is cheering? Why do we need a Cheerleader-in-Chief?), might the roughly 40% of us who click “Yes” on the pollster’s question “Do you support President Trump?” start clicking “No”? Might both the right and the left recognize that the fear we carry is common to us all, not a product of ideology? Might we wake to the realization that we value the life and civilization we share? Might we get it at last that being human is more precious than being conservative or liberal, than being White or of color, than being citizens of the U.S. or of Europe or China or Saudi Arabia or Iran?
“Oh, happy fault,” this coronavirus, if it were true. But probably it will not be true.
More likely, I’m afraid, we seem to be a perennially immature people, unable to put aside our ingrained beliefs and attitudes toward one another and learn the lessons of our catastrophes. Example: The Civil War killed more than 750,000 Americans from the North and the South. One decade later, when Reconstruction was demolished, it was replaced by the ruthless repression of African Americans and reduction of their freedom almost back to slavery status. Jim Crow remained the rule in the South (supported by both overt and covert racism in the North) until the 1960s, and in the last twelve years, White supremacy again rears its ugly and violent head: No lessons learned that could help us survive as one people.
In World War I, 116,708 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded. The surviving soldiers brought home the “Spanish flu,” the worst pandemic in world history. An estimated 675,000 Americans died in the pandemic. No sooner than we’d recovered from both catastrophes, our nation embarked on the Roaring Twenties, a decade-long orgy of conspicuous consumption, financial narcissism, and blindness to the unsustainability of the revelry. For all the fun, though, the plight of African Americans under Jim Crow remained as debilitating as ever, and income inequality was probably even worse in the 1920s than it is today. The Twenties delivered our country to the Crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression: No survival-worthy lessons learned.
My point is that national catastrophes do not seem to teach Americans much.
“O happy fault”?
More likely, the combined damage of the coronavirus and the collateral devastation of the economy will likely leave us with a profoundly wounded and different country and world. If we refuse to learn the lesson that we are all in this together, unchecked naïve partisanship and blindfolded ideology will end our time as the great democracy we have sometimes shown we are capable of sustaining. Like Alexander’s Greek empire, like Nero’s Roman empire, like Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish empire, like Henry’s English empire, like Napoleon’s French empire—we will be diminished as a meaningful player on the world stage.
On the other hand, if the pandemic and the fragility of our economy shock us awake so we can see our common stake and our bond as citizens of a country founded upon a noble truth—that we are all equal—then it may be we’ll survive.
If so, “O, felix culpa.”