Posted December 02, 2009 in Word Made Flesh:
Biblical Fiction

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Lets take a walk together up Calvary hill on that first Good Friday.

Good Friday during Advent, Father? Calvary at Christmas? Is this some kind of Irish seasonal pathology?

Well, hear me out and see what you think.

For a long time now, whenever I read the first few lines of Chapter 2 of Luke (from the Gospel for the midnight Christmas Mass) or 3 (from the Gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent) where Luke mentions so much happening in the world at the time of Christ, I can’t help but want to focus on history—on what happened.

Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken (Lk: 2:1).

And those lines mention a lot of people, people who really lived: Quirinius, governor of Syria; Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea; Annas and Caiaphas, high priests. Then I start thinking about those people who, though I read about them in fiction, were real historical figures—people in books such as Ben Hur and The Robe.

Every time I hear these readings, I have a strange desire to stop everything right there and bring these people up front and imagine their lives within the mystery of the life and times of Jesus Christ. I want to imagine what happened to them and what they might have done as a result of what they saw and experienced in these most important moments of human history.

We need history because the events of the Bible all really happened in history and we need to know the truth.

But we also need fiction because in order to make that history come alive for us, we need to imagine the people who lived during that history whether we are celebrating Advent and Christmas, or Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Case in point? Recently I had the occasion to re-read a section of the book Splendor of Sorrow on the Sorrows of Our Lady by Eddie Doherty. Taking his cue from the gospel account, he imagines the following scene:

The body of Jesus has just been taken down from the cross and placed in the arms of his Mother.

While she is holding the Body of her Son, and everyone is preparing for the quick burial, a creepy-looking, smelly creature comes up and hands her a sack of gold coins, a gift from him and Dismas, the good thief who is still hanging dead on the cross. He himself, he tells her, spent the night in a cell with her Son.

Then at the end of this story, we see this robust, unkempt stranger rolling the stone over the entrance to the tomb of the Son of God. And guess what? His name was Barabbas!

Eddie Doherty had that murderous rebel who was set free when the people cried out for the blood of Jesus show up at a place where Mercy and history can meet and touch real people.

Who knows what might have happened if…? Good holy stuff, Fr. Edward J. Doherty.

Then there’s The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas. A simple department store clerk from Ohio was a fan of his other spiritual writings, and she wrote him one day asking him what he thought might have happened to the seamless robe of Christ for which lots were cast by the soldiers that fateful day on Calvary.

Mr. Douglas took Hazel McCann’s idea seriously and eventually wrote another book. In it he imagines that the robe fell into the hands of a Roman centurion who had been punished by the Emperor and exiled from Rome to Jerusalem. His life of exile became a disaster.

In the casting of lots he, drunk at the time, "wins" the robe and that ends up changing his whole life.

He eventually takes the grace of conversion right back into the emperor’s own household in the heart of Rome.

Good and holy stuff, Mr. Douglas. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. The book was a best-seller in the U.S.A. all through the 1940’s and in 1953, it was made into a beloved movie.

And what about Ben Hur, one of my favorites—the book, not the movie! Lew Wallace, a Civil War survivor, wrote it off and on during and after the war.

It was first published in 1880 and was a phenomenal best-selling novel for over fifty years.

Most people are only acquainted with the 1959 movie and the famous chariot race à la Charlton Heston. So most of them do not know of the true spiritual genius of Mr. Wallace’s story.

Ben Hur is unjustly exiled from Jerusalem and sent to Rome as a slave. Mr.Wallace takes the simple gospel account of the three kings and weaves a faith-filled story around Ben Hur and a fourth king who didn’t make it to Bethlehem. Both find themselves many years later on Calvary, with Ben Hur, present for the crucifixion and a conversion both. Good and holy stuff, Mr. Wallace.

Real people? Real history? Real gospel? Well, at least a stroke of spiritual genius on the part of those writers who can imagine real people in the midst of salvation history, challenged and changed, perhaps healed and saved.

And let’s not forget The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. This is short enough to read aloud to the family for a few evenings during the Advent or Christmas Season.

I pray God for more such gifted writers who can get beyond the seasonal fluff and bring faith to life in every season, especially the major seasons of grace such as Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter.

It is true that some writers are foolish, even blasphemous, in their attempt to link the holy Word of God with their own fickle fiction.

But I believe a certain chosen few have avoided those traps because they have been smitten by the foolishness of Christ’s mercy. These authors can dress Mercy up in the whimsical suit of fiction and manage to do such a great and holy thing with reverence and excitement.

Have you ever read any of their books?

Incidentally, I have an idea for such a book myself if ever I am fully smitten by the "foolishness" of Christ instead of my own. It’s all about Mary Magdalene, and the centurion from Capernaum, the village next to Magdala, and his servant who gets cured by Jesus. But I have already written one book and have no yen for another.

You wrote a book?

Yes. And P.S., if you ask ole McSanta real nicely, he might send you a copy for your Merry Christmas. (Ho Ho Ho!)


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