18 February 2018

Qilin and lamb – a reflection on history for Lent

Qilin 麒麟

Gentle readers, you may have noticed a bit of a theme to the past few weeks of my blogging, and it may have left you wondering whether or not it was an accident – these reflections on the telos of ancient Chinese history interspersed with personal reflections on the Last Judgement. I’m here to put your mind at rest. It was an accident – a serendipitous one, as I’m discovering, which I hereby intend to build on.

The Lenten season, for us Orthodox Christians – with its three pillars of prayer and fasting and almsgiving – is meant to serve two purposes: to turn us inward, toward the holy stillness of ēsuchía as expressed in the prayer of the heart; and to turn us backward, to reorient ourselves to Christ and see where we have been failing to meet Him. One of the things that the Church does, to aid us in turning backward, is to recount to us the history of the Hebrew people – and in particular the story of the Exodus. This is all very finely spoken, you might say. But what does it have to do with ancient China? What makes ancient China a fitting topic for Lent? Isn’t the Hebrew historical tradition used by the Church sui generis in terms of how it relates to our salvation?

The answer to the last question is an unambiguous ‘yes’: Hebrew history is the history of our salvation, and Christ is the personal recapitulation, the face and the true meaning of that history. But when reading the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah – the readings that are going to happen this coming week – I can’t help but recall the history of cosmic decline accounted in the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. The propitiations offered by the Hebrews which the prophet deems ‘unpleasing’ to God have a strong, an all-too-strong echo in those ritual sacrifices of the Dukes of Lu, which earn the ‘mockery’ and derision of the chronicler. When the prophet says:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats… Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
Reading Isaiah now, I can’t help but think of the Dukes and other ‘lords of the land’ in the Gongyang Commentary who murdered their kinfolk, committed tremendous injustices against their neighbours and even against their own people, but then sought to appease their gods and ancestors with overweening ceremonies that took place even out-of-season. And I can’t help but think of the same attempts at a kind of propitiation at work in our ‘thoughts and prayers’ in light of our own human sacrifices. We are, after all, living in the same ‘long defeat’. History has refused, most unobligingly, to come to an end for us and our generation.

But what the Hebrew tradition, and what the Gongyang commentator both tell us, is that even if we are lost in the wilderness; even if we are among idols; even if we find ourselves mired in this kind of decline; even if we are found so far from God’s presence – we cannot take refuge in defeatism. In the Exodus story, in the prophecies of Isaiah and in that one last ‘marvel’ of the fourteenth year of Duke Ai’s reign at the end of the Spring and Autumn Annals, we catch fleeting glimpses of an unveiling, of the presence of God in history – whether in the image of a qilin or in that of a lamb. In all these instances, God is always nearer to us than we think. Even if we happen to be looking for Him half a world away or in the musty pages of a 2,500-year-old history book.

The practice of turning inward and turning backward is an inescapably historical exercise. Historical memory is painful, for the same reasons true repentance is painful. Saint Paul and the Fathers of the Early Church were aware, centuries before Nietzsche, that memory is eternally in a losing conflict with pride. Their solution, however, is to strengthen the arm of memory with the history of the salvation of the Hebrews from Egypt, and the voice of prophecy within that history that still challenges us. At the same time, we are to restrain our own pride by restraining what we eat, what we see and hear, what we say and do, and by limiting what we withhold for ourselves and our own use. May God strengthen our wills in attending to both tasks.

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