Recently I attended a performance of the Opera “Medea” by the Italian Composer Luigi Cherubini. It was based on the French play by Corneille and ultimately on the Greek Classic by Euripides. Euripides wrote his play centuries before the coming of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. As such, it enshrines a pre-Christian view of life that is essentially tragic. For those who have never seen any version of the play, I will briefly summarize the plot.
Medea is a king’s daughter in ancient Greece who falls in love with Jason, who with a group of men called the Argonauts is seeking the Golden Fleece. She helps him, being a sorceress, by betraying her kingdom and even killing her own brother. She bears two children for Jason. After a few years, Jason falls in love with someone else and abandons Medea, taking with him his two children. When he is about to marry another woman, Medea shows up in not too great a mood, to say the least!
She causes the agonizing death of the new bride and then proceeds to slaughter her own children. This story of revenge is frightening to say the least and speaks of the enduring power of the ancient Greek dramas.
But, as a Christian and a priest, I was so saddened by the hopelessness of this story. For in Christ, all things have changed, all things are new (cf. Rev. 21:5). The message of forgiveness and mercy in the Gospel makes the story of Medea tragic, not because it is revealing of how things are, trapped as we all are on this earth; but because it needn’t have ended this way. Jason could have taken a moral route to find the fleece. He could have married Medea out of love and commitment. He could have stayed married to her and enjoyed his children as they grew older. And even if he did not heed the call of the Gospel freedom, Medea could have forgiven him and been present to her children in an admittedly unsatisfactory way outside the immoral decisions of her husband.
The Gospel message, accepted and celebrated, would have nullified the horrible and seemingly final tragedy that I saw on stage. This is why there is a scholarly opinion that the Christian Gospel has nullified the usual human trajectory of tragedy. Christ has made tragedy futile and unnecessary.
Like so much of our modern world, descending as it does from the Christian heritage of our past, we are unconsciously affected by the past and its having been embedded in our present.
But we seem to have reached a point when the force of the Christian outlook has lost its influence in our culture. With its loss, we have begun to drift back into a state of quasi-paganism. The hopeful and transforming message of Christ is being uprooted day by day in our culture: in the government, in the media, in the universities, in art. With this devolution of meaning has come a new paralysis before the force of evil and a willed moral ignorance of the meaning of human life.
The demons of our past history are returning. And we don’t even realize what we have lost. As the Gospel warns, the old demons come back with new demons worse than the first ones (cf. Matt. 12:45 & Lk. 11:26) and the ruin of everything becomes worse than when we started out before Christianity took effect.
When Bishop Brennan first met many of the priests of the Diocese at the deanery meetings, he gave all of us a copy of a book by Fr. James Shea entitled From Christendom to Apostolic Witness. “Christendom” happens when Christianity is lived and practiced by most of the people in that culture (think of the 1950’s). Now the fastest growing ‘religion’ is that of the ‘nones’: those who believe in no religion. Fr. Shea says that how we deal with this fundamental shift is to go back to the times of the first apostles when they preached to a hostile, pagan culture. We need to witness personally to Christ and accept possible martyrdom for our beliefs.
This is not the first time that whole countries seemed to have lost the faith. In the early medieval ages, not too long after the fall of the Roman Empire, whole parts of Europe began to lose the Christian faith and revert to paganism once again. It was the Irish monks that came back into Europe proper and taught the faith that earlier missionaries from Europe itself had preached in Ireland when they converted the Irish. The Irish monks returned the favor.
We have seen many African and Indian priests now running our parishes whom were once in mission lands preached at by European and Americans. Nigeria and other countries are now returning the favor and perhaps re-Christianizing Europe and America. As the United States and Europe seem to be drifting back into paganism, one has to look at the Church from a global perspective, for there are many places that the Church is growing in an enormous way. The last century saw a huge number of martyrs to the faith. And remember: martyrdom is the seed of the Church.
Therefore, expect a growth in the Church worldwide, but maybe not here! Not yet, at least!