Past Present by Anthony Esolen

Past Present

The Grateful Living Will Rise Up

And with a great groan Jesus gave up the ghost. Then his disciples fled.

When the barbarian warlord Clovis first heard the account of the Crucifixion, he is said to have shaken his head and said, “If only I had been there with my Franks!” “If only we had been there,” we say. Why? What would we have done?

The disciples fled because they were in danger of their lives. Yes, they were, and it soothes us to think so. It allows us to believe that a little more of a virtue we can understand, courage, would have kept them steadfast. So embarrassed was one old Saxon monk by their flight, that he gave them something noble to do first. The beloved thanes of the Lord, says the author of the stupendous Dream of the Rood, took their victorious chieftain down from the Cross, “a little weary after the great battle.” Dead, that is. Then they sang him a lay of sorrow. Only then did they leave him.

Stouthearted German warriors, those apostles in the poem. Yet I think they can tell us what the disciples were really running from, and what they have to say does no credit to modern man. For modern man is a runaway. Indeed, being a runaway is almost the only virtue he acknowledges, though he calls it by names that lay a flattering unction to his soul.

The Weight of Loss

With Jesus on the Cross died all the hopes the disciples had ever had. They were crushed under the unbearable weight of loss. To look upon the face of that dead man was to remember when he had touched the man with the withered hand, and it was healed. It was to recall the faint irony in the voice when he called his beloved John and James “the sons of thunder.” It was to feel once more the peace upon the hillside, a re-echoing stillness, as the simple words poured forth: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be with Jesus at such a time—was it not like being granted a fleeting moment of divine knowledge, so that you could look upon all creation and see that it was very good?

“It is good for us to be here!” cried Peter upon the mount of transfiguration. He was not in his senses at the time, says the evangelist by way of apology. No apology is needed. The vision vanished.

And now on the mount of Calvary, everything that Peter and his fellows had ever known of Jesus vanishes. The cruelty of loss, or of nothingness, confronts them with its blank and dead stare. So life has come to this. It was but the dream of a thirsty man in the night, who dreams he drinks, but when he wakes, he thirsts still. And there will come a night whence he will wake no more.

The old Germans, Clovis’s kin, sang of the pain of loss as well as any people ever have. “Where is the hero? Where are the hall-joys?” cries the speaker of The Wanderer. All the things we have loved in his lean short life are gone, he says, “dim under the helm of night/ as if they never were.”

Yet in that sorrow the good warrior is to remember the favors of his lord. He is to muster a virtue more human than courage. He is to muster his gratitude, recommitting himself to those, now gone, to whom he owes all. Says one of the few surviving warriors of the Viking raid in The Battle of Maldon:

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (, on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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