Today, besides being Good Friday, is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been ninety-one. It is an altogether appropriate Holy Day for Flannery O’Connor, for Good Friday is the day when grace looks like utter disaster. On Good Friday, the parables run backward: The Kingdom of God is like unto a serial killer that has murdered your whole family and is about to murder you. The Kingdom of God is like unto a Bible salesman who breaks your heart, steals your wooden leg, and leaves you stranded in a hayloft.
The Kingdom of God is like unto the King of Glory become a man, beaten and stripped and nailed to a cross to die. And you didn’t expect it to end this way, but now you don’t have any reason to expect it to end any other way.
“In spite of that, we call this Friday good” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”).
On Good Friday, 1958, Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend, “When you go to Communion, you receive grace but you experience nothing; or if you do experience something, what you experience is not the grace, but an emotion caused by it.”
I thought of this insight last night, when I attended a Maundy Thursday service. Surely this is the strangest service of the Christian year. After the awkward beauty of the foot-washing (which at times seemed like an experiment dreamed up by an off-kilter cultural anthropologist), the priest stripped the altar. He blew out the candles and gathered up the cups and plates from Communion and clattered them into the supply closet. He pulled off his bright vestments, down to his plain black shirt and pants, and stripped the vestments from the altar, and flung them all in the closet. He turned out lights.
Meanwhile, a reader read Psalm 22:
My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
By night, but I find no rest.
When he was done stripping the altar, the priest stalked down the aisle and out the back door. No benediction, no dismissal. We just stood there looking at the bare altar in a darkened room, then we wandered out by ones and twos.
It was unsettling. It didn’t feel like grace. It felt, in fact, more like desecration.
I’m trying not to skip ahead to Easter. I’m trying, these two days, to sit in the grace of the stripped altar and enter imaginatively into the place of the disciples, who only knew that their Lord had died, not that he would rise again. Flannery O’Connor’s stories are a help in that regard. Her characters suffer and boast and finagle their way through a broken world, unaware that grace is streaking silently toward them like a meteor that will throw everything off balance.
I’m trying to live in that silence today and tomorrow. But I also have to note another anomaly of the church calendar this year. March 25, besides being Flannery O’Connor’s birthday, is normally the Feast of the Annunciation. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas; this is the day that the Church has historically celebrated the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear a Son. If we weren’t commemorating the death of Jesus today, we would be commemorating his conception. The beginning is in the end. The Alpha is in the Omega.
Flannery O’Connor used to read Thomas Aquinas for twenty minutes before bed each night. She once wrote to a friend,
If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.
The Light is eternal and limitless. On Good Friday, we commemorate an eclipse. We walk in the darkness this weekend. But the Light still shines, the beginning living even in the end.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.