The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
In 1922 T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, a lengthy, complex poem that solidified his position at the pinnacle of the Modernist movement—a movement characterized by its sense that the traditional structures of art, culture, and religion were “like an old bitch gone in the teeth,” discredited, impotent. For Modernism, all that remained of western culture was a heap of broken images for the artist to sift through, reassembling the few usable shards into something new, something that might speak to a new generation.
Naturally, Modernists thought the Christian faith might provide some useful images but Christianity—along with the notion of an all-powerful, benevolent God—were most certainly passé. As the title suggests, The Waste Land reflects on the bleak, meaningless nature of modern life as the chorus of voices that weave in and out of the poem search for some sort of meaning, something to redeem the destructive impulses of passionless and sterile sex, rape, addiction, and suicide.
Needless to say, the literary world was somewhat puzzled when Eliot—this Modernist visionary—went on to publish The Journey of the Magi in 1927 and then Ash Wednesday in 1930. These poems—particularly Ash Wednesday— mark, in no uncertain terms, his conversion to a very traditional and highly orthodox version of the Christian faith. Eliot’s poetic and religious journey from the waste land of modern life to a redemptive vision for the individual and society culminated in The Four Quartets. Rather than filling the Modernist call to build something new out of the discredited rubble of the past, The Four Quartets are a re-presentation of the Christian narrative in the language of Modernism.
The quartets grapple with the great mysteries of the Christian faith celebrated in the Christian year: Holy Week, the Incarnation, Pentecost. Underlying these mysteries—and Eliot’s exploration of them—is the question, how can one man’s death in the first century in Palestine bring about the salvation of the world? How can his death bring about forgiveness for other people’s sins?
Like the writer of the biblical letter of Hebrews, Eliot knows this great mystery can only begin to be apprehended through rethinking linear time. Thus, he begins with cosmic history and the “intersection of the timeless with time,” which he calls the “still-point of the turning world.” The moments of the Incarnation (which Christians celebrate at Christmas) and Holy Week (in which Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus) are not discrete, disconnected events but the epicenter of the great cosmic quake that occurs when God enters human history. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the center, the axis around which the rest of history revolves, with the ripples from this “timeless moment” stretching before and after. Each previous foreshadowing act of redemption in the Christian narrative—the ram God provides in lieu of Isaac, the exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt—and each act of redemption—individual or corporate—to come are ripples from the epicenter marked by the cross.
As this image of salvation rippling out suggests, each moment and each individual agent in history is not a discreet unit operating under its own direction. To say that people and events are influenced by what comes before is too weak and linear a way of understanding the actuality of the apparently impossible union of the timeless God with human history. It is as if the eternal, infinite energy of God piercing into the finite universe in the person of Jesus is what gives narrative motion to all of history and, as such, that divine disturbance claims for itself all those who are willing to be claimed in its temporal ripples.
How can that be? As with the Medieval champion or the ancient King, Jesus’ fate is the fate of his followers, just as each ripple in a pond is really just the visual impact of the stone that breaks the water’s surface. Jesus’ death is able to effect this ultimate resurrection and redemption because, while all that is mortal can only die, death—in claiming the immortal for itself—begins working backward, as C. S. Lewis put it. Destruction and brokenness, in overstepping their bounds by breaking and destroying the holy perfection of God-made-Man, are defeated and the holy God who formed heaven and earth shows himself victorious on behalf of all who will be claimed by his kingship.