Christ or Prometheus? Choose Carefully
In the past week, we’ve thought a lot about Gothic cathedrals. We saw the greatest on earth, Notre Dame in Paris, afflicted by fire. Now we learn that its solid, still standing core is menaced by something more dangerous: modern hubris. The building is not controlled by the Catholic Church, which built it, but by the French state, which stole it. (In 1905, the French government seized all church property and expelled all religious orders.)
The president of France, Immanuel Macron, wants to cement his legacy. He’d like it to be something more than Yellow-Vest workers rioting in the streets, as France continues to crumble. So instead of asking historical restoration experts to restore and complete Notre Dame, he has invited proposals from perhaps the lowest form of life on earth: modern architects. Macron is talking about hijacking the site and perverting Notre Dame into some post-modern monstrosity, a Disney-meets-Vegas mishmash of medieval faith and contemporary steel and glass glitz. All the better to represent “contemporary France.” Of course, if Macron really wanted a memorial to that, he’d leave the site a smoldering ruin.
St. Patrick’s and Rockefeller Center
It’s almost too painful to think about Notre Dame. So let’s speak instead of the smaller, less historic, but still intact St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Because a powerful Easter theme’s embodied in that building and one nearby. The front of the cathedral faces Fifth Avenue and 50th Street. Its bronze doors stand right across from the back of Rockefeller Center. Go one block west, and in that magnificent Art Deco complex you’ll find a vast gold statue. Floating as if in mid-air above the famous ice-skating rink is the gilded titan Prometheus. Put there by John D. Rockefeller, a self-made magnate, it embodies his view of Progress.
The quite lovely statue shows Prometheus in his moment of revolt and glory. He’s stealing fire from heaven, and sharing its secret with man. Now man can cook his food, smelt bronze, illumine his cities and burn down his enemies’ forts. He can begin, in other words, to challenge the gods. The Greek myth which tells the tale says that Zeus was outraged at such a threat. So he devised for Prometheus the most lavishly cruel of punishments. Zeus chained him to a rock till the end of time, to have a bird pick out his liver — which would grow back during the night, so the torment would never end.
The Cosmic Rebel
Playwrights such as Aeschylus, poets like Shelley, and revolutionaries like Marx would latch on to Prometheus as an emblem of human rebellion against the grimness of mortal existence. A suffering savior, who delivered man from the tyranny of a dark and cold universe that cares nothing for his well-being. The eternity of his suffering also sends the quiet message: the universe wins. Nobody can free him. Zeus won’t forgive him. And for all our successful efforts to improve our brief span on this planet, in the end we die and vanish. Our works, however ingenious, all come to the same desolate ruin as the statue of Ozymandias which Shelley imagined in the vast desert.
All Is Vanity
In the words of Ecclesiastes:
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever….
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them. (Eccl. 1)
How different the experience of skating at Rockefeller Center would be if the statue instead showed Prometheus, chained to the rock, with the above as its inscription. …
And that was the view of life, for pretty much every people on earth, before Jesus rose. Even the Jews had a patchy and uncertain view of the afterlife. (The Pharisees affirmed it, but the Sadducees who ran the temple denied it.) The Romans and Greek imagined a shadowy, wretched subsistence of insubstantial shadows. The Hindus and Buddhists? A vast, creaky wheel of interminable reincarnation, where the only hope lay in extinction.
Not Rebelling but Restoring
Then Jesus burst the tomb. He didn’t lay in anguish for countless centuries, tormented by the highest god. He climbed the cross freely at the one true God’s request, as an act of love for a Father. And, in a crucial truth, for men. Unlike Prometheus, he wasn’t rebelling against the order of the Cosmos. He was restoring it. While the elements of earth and the emptiness of space might not be our friends, the spirit that made them is. The mind that kindled the fire of the Big Bang wanted to share it with us. He doesn’t envy our knowledge or fear our progress.
He wants us, in fact, to progress much further than we’d imagined. And He wants us to unite ourselves to Him, by becoming His sons — instead of slaves, as Zeus demanded. Instead of eating his children (see Zeus) out of fear that they’d overthrow him, the real God feeds His Son to us in the Eucharist, the better to divinize us.
Because men fell, we lost our native immunity to chaos, decay and death. Those “preternatural gifts” were too dangerous in the hands of reckless sinners. As C.S. Lewis observed, if fallen man didn’t face suffering and death, he’d become a kind of demon. (For a powerful sci-fi depiction of that truth, see the — alas, R-rated — Netflix series, Altered Carbon.)
The World Turned Right Side Up
But that didn’t mean the Cosmos became our enemy, as Prometheus believed. Our rebellion against the order of things, repeated in each man’s sins, couldn’t change what God ordained. It did mean that there would be suffering, disappointment, decay and death. Those grim facts rushed in to human existence with Adam and Eve. Even God couldn’t wish them away, without destroying the very fabric of Being which He had woven. Instead of shredding the tapestry and starting all over again, He wove them into the pattern. The warp of human sin would meet the weft of Jesus’ suffering, and the pattern would form a cross.
Today that banner of victory hangs over a plundered tomb, one raided of its treasure and left gaping, toothless. A mockery of the powers of death and darkness. Its emptiness sends us a message.
It’s the best news in history, or even in eternity. The universe isn’t wicked, we are. God isn’t a tyrant, we’re rebels. The order of the Cosmos reasserts itself on Easter. We see that it’s not our task to suffer forever, chained to a rock and shrieking defiance. Instead, if we bend the knee, and shoulder the cross, the world turns right side up again. It’s as if poor Prometheus were to awake, and see that all his misery was just a hideous dream.