BY JEREMY BEGBIE
Many of us are haunted by the memory of a missed opportunity. Near the end of Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, an old priest sits in his cell the night before his execution. He looks back over his life, thinking of all the things he could have done and should have done, could have said and should have said. As Greene has it, “He felt like someone who had missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place.”
Most of us can remember times when promising openings slipped by: the ideal partner we could have had if we had just had the courage to say the right thing at the right time; the exam we should have taken more seriously; the things we wish we had said to the dying relative before it was too late. Appointed places come and go, and it always seems to be after they’ve gone we recognise them as appointed. “If only….”
During a visit to South Africa a few years ago, a white woman who lived through the apartheid years told me she could now hardly believe how blind she was, how she never noticed the systemic injustice that surrounded her year after year, grinding black South Africans into poverty and shame. She could have done, should have done so much more. Like Schindler at the end Schindler’s List, as the black cars come to take him away, suddenly seized by the horror of the mass killing of Jews in his own town, haunted by an agonizing sense of the inaccessibility of the past, of not being able to relive that moment, that place and that time. But it’s too late, too late now. The appointed places have slipped by.
The God of the Christian Bible is a God of appointed places, openings in the fabric of history that invite life-changing choices, choices that can turn everything around. Some of us talk about God being everywhere. But this God isn’t only present in this wide and general sense, as a sort of background. This God specialises in meeting people at appointed places, entry points to avenues of joy. The little openings come more often than we think: when we suddenly have the chance to tell someone they matter to us, perhaps, or send a card to a friend stuck in lockdown, or say yes to the offer of help that comes out of the blue.
But there’s one appointed place that seems to matter more than any other to God, a rendezvous site where God promises to be more real to us than anywhere else. On the face of it, it’s hardly an enticing place: a rubbish dump outside ancient Jerusalem. And it’s hardly an enticing event: an execution, a staged killing designed to torture and humiliate the victim in the most gruesome way. It was carried out by the Romans, who, colluding with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, wanted to get rid of Jesus of Nazareth, a would-be Messiah.
But those who were there later came to believe there was more going on here than just the actions of Jews and Romans, bloodthirsty crowds, and cringing disciples. Above all, there was God, God setting up an appointed place. For here, all the hate, malice, and violence the world could muster was being hurled directly at God. But God does the opposite of what we might expect. In the world as we know it, when we’re attacked, we’ll counter-attack, or take out our irritation on someone else (a friend or partner who happens to be around), and often in an even worse form. We keep the violence in motion, send it round, keep it in circulation. But here—at this place, this crucifixion—the opposite happens. The cycle of hatred and revenge is broken: here God takes on animosity (including yours) but gives back no spite; here God takes on human anger at its worst (including yours) but gives none back. God refuses to re-circulate the world’s violence. God absorbs it, takes evil into the black hole of hell once and for all, so we can be freed from its grip once and for all.
This, then, is the ultimate Appointed Place. A place in history—the only place—where we can be freed from those aching “if onlys” which litter our lives, where we can discover what it means for God not to hold anything against us (however many opportunities we’ve missed), where all the world’s misery is taken to the grave, where failure dies and makes way for joy and laughter. It’s easy to miss . . . and sometimes only by seconds.
Jeremy Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Distinguished Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School.
This piece is a part of a syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. Read more at: https://www.yalelogos.com/lent-2021