Gil Bailie, founder and President of the Cornerstone Forum has quipped, "The ancient world did not have Christianity; it had catharsis."
Crucifixion (1617) - Bruegel
This shows his predilection for poetry, diction, and sheer determination to pack as much into as little space as possible. Aristotle described catharsis as the purging of the emotions of pity and fear that are aroused in the viewer of a tragedy. We can readily recall such moments: if we are old enough, the moment we heard President Kennedy had been shot; the riveting scenes of the twin towers afire and collapsing in lower Manhattan.
René Girard's mimetic theory posits catharsis as the denouement of both the founding violence of the primitive sacred and that of ritual, one of the three off-shoots of that same primitive sacred (the other two being prohibition and myth).
So, why does Bailie state Christianity as the alternative to the catharsis? After all, our founding violence entailed the horribly violent crucifixion of the One we call Lord and God (Jn 20,28). Yes, that's the rub. The difference lies in these vital facts: (1) the murder of our supreme Victim, Jesus the Lord, did not "take". The crowds left, it is said, "beating their breasts" (Lk 23,48). The sacrificial quotient fell flat in confusion rather than camaraderie.
(2) Second, as St. Augustine noted, our supreme Victim revealed God's will, even from the cross, teaching us to forgive our tormentors. Again Bailie: "On the cross, we would see them as ravenous wolves; He saw us as lost sheep."
(3) The followers of our supreme Victim met Him again, resurrected. Yes, He could do things like walk through walls as we walk through campfire smoke (this argues for a more substantive resurrected Body, not less), and shared fish with them on the seashore (Jn 21,12). But more importantly, He forgave them their cowardice, abandonment, fear, and denial of Him.
(4) It is for this last reason that the earliest witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ waded right into the same crowd on the day of Pentecost that called for their Master's crucifixion not to slay, seek to avenge and wreak revenge ... but to invite them to repent, be forgiven (as He had forgiven them), and be baptized in the Lord's Name (Acts 2,38).
This is the abysmal chasm between catharsis and Christianity. The former always - always - seeks vengeance and reprisal, calling out its "sacred" duty to the dark gods of blood and mayhem. The latter, though imperfectly by Christians, knows that its touchstone is always - always - to forgive as we have been forgiven, because all of us are sinners.
This Lent, let us ponder these strange mysteries embedded on the one hand in the ways of catharsis still very persistent in our world, and, on the other, the Lord who trudged His lonely path to the hill called Golgotha to - one last time in Bailie's words, "shove a stick in the spokes of the primitive sacred's cathartic mechanism."
When we gather at the Altar of our supreme Victim, we say that God is finally vindicated of all our human violence. He came to be our supreme Victim, to show us, once and for all, the way out of our fallen human ways of death, catharsis, and despair. Deo gratias. +