The scene opens on the ancient grounds of Camp Pragmatics where newly arrived recruits stand uniformed and ready before Drill Sargeant Joe Lamech Skull, now in the middle of Company 666‘s morning drill.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?Romans 7:24
There’s a moment in The Understudy1 when the novel shifts focus from what it means to be human to what it means to be religious. It’s a question introduced by an AI that’s a hybrid of microchip and flesh-and-blood tissue. Wondering aloud at his mistaking someone as religious, Attik is asked in turn: Are you a religious man? Are you religious? Without hesitation this organically grown hybrid replies, Of course. Human in every way except for his brain, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that his being is subject to contingencies, therefore dependent on a higher power. He knows too that this is an instinctively religious apprehension.
Attik is no Frankenstein’s monster. Yet this perfect invulnerable being has his fall. He is human after all. His is a body of death, just as the humans who designed him, full of rebellious and covetous desires. As he realizes just how human he is, he recognizes the need for absolution, for peace and reconciliation with the One who gave him and all humanity the gift of being.
Towards the end of the novel, Attik finds himself in the ironic position of a priest.
He knew the ritual. He had the bread and wine. It only wanted a God to make it body and blood now. …
They were all orphans here.
God could make a priest out of anything, metal or mud.
Whatever you were made of, you borrowed your blood, anyway.
Following Attik through the novel, one is following the growth of a religious man and, in a sense, traversing anew old ground, the fall and redemption of mankind, the journey to God. Which is what makes this sparely written scene so poignant and tinged by the piercing cost of sacrifice: the bread is Christ’s own flesh, the wine is Christ’s own blood shed on the cross.
And [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.Luke 22:19-20
As Attik intimates, we are all orphans: that is, until we find our home in Christ Jesus by way of his flesh and blood, his body the torn veil into the holy of holies where we can have eternal communion with God.
And as Attik finds, we are all religious, whether or not we choose to acknowledge the contingency of our being or not. We don’t have control over our lives, not even our own desires. We all need to be set free from the bondage of sin and death. And who can deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7: 25)
This ground underfoot, this riddling ground
Would you say you know it down to Adam and Eve,
Where lie its precipices, its canyons,
Where breathe the dragons that prey
On travelers at dusk and lost children?
I have walked on it with trepidation,
Fainting not, East of Eden, west of the moon,
Where the dead among the living
Like infernal winds sweep over the earth
Furies spitting on the destinies of men.
All around the wasteland where visions die
Banshees howl and half-formed men bay
Around fires of Cain’s wandering offspring.
Nevertheless, the eternal revelation, tri-folded,
Goes forth to the hungry and the poor in spirit.
The riddled ground beneath our feet,
Treacherous though it be, is as the dust of history
And we quickened ones like lilies of the field,
Dandelions harboring the unsearchable riches of Christ
To show forth the unassailable purpose of God.
Dumb to the world’s riddles, trusting, we carry on,
Until spinning out of bereft arms into shrouds
Or across canyons of a diseased mind
We lose each other to time’s grasp, till time stops,
And we, with joy unspeakable, everlasting, walk on new ground.
Ephesians 3: 8-12, Tyndale Bible (1522)
Vnto me the lest of all sayntes is this grace geven that I shuld preache amonge the gentyls the unsearchable ryches of Christ and to make all men se what the felyshippe of the mistery is which from the begynnynge of the worlde hath bene hid in God which made all thynges thorow Iesus Christ to the intent that now vnto the rulars and powers in heven myght be knowe by the congregacion the many folde wisdome of god accordinge to the eternall purpose which he purposed in Christ Iesu oure lorde by whom we are bolde to drawe nye in ye trust which we have by faith on him.
Isaiah 46:8-10 NASB
“Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
[I am] God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'”
**Featured Image: “Moody Skies” (Lizzie Crawford, 2020)
I lift up my eyes
one day’s dawn closer
Love’s banners streaming
nail-scarred grace unrelenting
boundless praise flowing
a radiant crescendo
jeweled vision before me —
Psalm 84: 5-7 NIV
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
It’s not time that drips so slow
through the coffee grinds of the past
that percolates in the heat of memory
now distilling the sweet and bitter
into a narcotic pool of the half-remembered.
It’s not space that encroaches
into visions that come in the night
to shake the weary from slumber
and snap the mind to stark awakening
in the light of the inexorable coming.
It’s eternity placed in the center of being
robbing the world of its threatening specters
carcasses of vanity parading through cheap confetti
chained to open graves of corruption and pride
rotting corpses in that day’s foretold light.
Oh You who call me from realms free of time
where space recedes to glorious expanse of a new dawn
who cautions me in apostolic prophecy,
who stations in my heart the outpost of your dominion,
Oh, now greet me, now descend anew with thy holy kiss!
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (Mark 2:17)
Speak life to my bones
Command health to my soul
Restore loving compassion
Instill sweet amazing grace
Send forth Your Spirit
Throw open the gates
Cast light in the darkness
Lead me to Your Word
Speak of Your blood
Shed from the cross
Grant healing forgiveness
Set free my guilty soul.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” … For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10: 9-13, ESV)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, ESV)
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 7-11, ESV)
Father, before you I kneel in dismay
Ashamed I’ve grieved you again today
Aware that this handful of dust and clay
Rescued from darkness to eternal day
Betrayed your love, from You turned away:
O forgive me, I pray!
Driven by discontent and greed
All I could see was my own selfish need
Taking me swiftly where You do not lead
Enticing in thought, and word, and deed
Faithless to endure and your word to heed:
O Spirit of God, help me!
Nothing I do will right my wrong
Against You I have sinned and oh how I long
To be set free from guilt so strong
Blinding me to whom in love I belong
Who over death my victory won:
My hope rests in Jesus alone!
For His is the blood that washed me clean
His death on the cross covered all my sin
His is the power that sets me free to begin
Humbly to walk with You again
Trusting the word of my sovereign King
For life abundant united to Him!
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
Ash Wednesday was originally the day in the church year when people who were ordered to show public penitence for their sins began forty days of penance—outward displays of inward repentance. Sometime around the end of the first millennium the practice became more general. The symbol of this was marking the forehead with ashes. It was the sign that a person had begun a multi-week fast, with forty weekdays included. They were now setting out on an internal journey of the spirit that would end only with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The message was visible on their faces” (Sinclair Ferguson, To Seek and To Save).
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”
They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”
He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
(Daniel 3: 16-18, 24-25)
Even if the fire should scorch
The flames should singe till sight is lost
And flesh burn off like candle wax —
Even if dreams deferred
Rot the heart and sicken hope
To shriveled bones like raisins in the blaze of day —
Even then I will not bow to gilt or gold
To fortune’s prince or hell’s hot blast
For a Love stronger than death.
Don’t stand there with your sword drawn —
Or in your case, the pen — as if
You see the fires of hell in my tongue
And the corruption of corpses long dead
To the ravenous lusts of the flesh —
Warning of eternal judgment.
Mark 14: 66-72
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.
“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.
But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.
When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.
After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”
He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.