When I was a junior in high school, I read Shirley Jackson’s great short story “The Lottery,” and I will confess that her narrative still haunts me. You might remember the plot. The townspeople of a village in the American heartland are gathering on a beautiful summer day in late June for a festival. There is good food, lively conversation, and upbeat music. It becomes clear that the focus for this celebration is the annual lottery, and the reader naturally assumes that the winner of the lottery will receive a prize of some kind. But when the choice is made, the “winner” shrinks away in fear, protesting the injustice of it all, while her fellow citizens close in on her, rocks and stones in hand. As the story ends, they are upon her. In ancient Mexico, the Aztecs would choose a particularly handsome and brave warrior from a rival tribe. For a year, they would wine and dine him, provide entertainment for him, and treat him like a celebrity. Then, at the close of the year, they would lead him to the top of a tall pyramid and rip his still-beating heart from his chest, and offer it to the gods. In the arenas of ancient Rome—most famously in the Colosseum—young gladiators would engage in mortal combat for the entertainment of blood-thirsty mobs, and emperors would use these spectacles for cynical political purposes. In the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur, we hear that the king of Crete obligated the king of Athens every year to send seven young men and seven young women to battle the Minotaur who was hidden in a devilishly complex maze. No one survived the ordeal, until Theseus managed to outwit the monster and escape from the maze.
The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar to them that they probably don't sense their properly revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death.
Artistic representations of the Ten Commandments often depict two stone tablets on which there are two tables of inscriptions. This portrayal follows from a classical division of the commandments in which there are two specific categories—those that order humanity’s relationship with God and those that order human relationships with one another. If we consider the Bible as a totality, it becomes apparent that the Scriptures give priority to the first table, those commands dealing with God.
Some years ago, Holy Cross Father James Burtchaell published a seminal book entitled The Dying of the Light. The central thesis of this study was that hundreds of universities that began under religious auspices and for religious purposes—the University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, to name just some of the most prominent—have undergone so thorough an erosion of their original identities that now they are utterly secular in orientation. A particularly interesting feature of Burtchaell’s book was his analysis of the slow, subtle process by which the change from fervently religious to blandly secular took place: slight changes, little adjustments, tiny concessions barely noticed at the time, but all of them conducing finally toward the inevitable secularization. The Dying of the Light was meant to be a sobering lesson and a wake-up call to many Catholic universities today, which find themselves on a similar path to compromise.
One of the great icons in the Catholic Church today is Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York making his way up the aisle to commence Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. While the congregation belts out the opening hymn, the good Archbishop thumps his episcopal crozier on the ground, beams at all and sundry, kisses babies, embraces young and old, calls out the names of friends he recognizes, and generally speaking, spreads good cheer in every direction. One would have to be either catatonic or positively Scroogian in temperament not to find the scene utterly delightful.