the penultimate WORD

Series 2008 - February
There is nothing left but faith...


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican





There was nothing left but faith in what the heart doth say...

There was nothing left but faith in what the heart doth say.

:Ivan Karamazov The Grand Inquisitor

The Brothers Karamazov

The shadows of the Giralda conceal a struggle begun in Lent and found in every age. The former minaret of the Almohad Mosque tolls bells summoning the faithful to the great Temple of Christendom.  Compassion and weakness emerge from the darkness. 

Ivan Karamazov drew on images that were familiar in his day and echoed the scriptural record of a day fifteen hundred years long past.  Lacking both meter and rhyme, his Grand Inquisitor goes beyond the limitations of prose.  God’s grace had not been witnessed and Amos’ voice recalled the famine foretold and the promised Lenten fast. Visiting Seville, Jesus is apprehended by the Church authority and his Temptations are adjudicated in silence – at the bidding of a scarlet Prince of the Church.

Faith and freedom struggle in the precincts of the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.  The bitterness of his Grand Inquisitor is rivalled only by the orange harvest of February.  Nothing puts the bite into winter like Seville oranges.  For all their fragrance they are all but inedible.  In Dickens’ London, they are a key ingredient to a punch called “Smoking Bishop”.  But that is a story of Christmas Now Past.


As bitter as ashes, the Grand Inquisitor tries Jesus.

The impoverished and hungry were sufficient to tempt the Church and where Jesus was bold, the Inquisitor equivocated.  Paternalism cloaked in charity, stones would become bread, stale and hard as granite.  The hungry would be fed and their dependence on the Cardinal’s largesse held the poor captive and Isaiah a liar.

The towering height of the Giralda rivalled the Tower of David – now occupied by Muslims.  Better that arrogance now challenge the angels of heaven in Seville for all of Christendom!  Hagai Sophia now converted to Islam, the Almohad mosque converted to Christianity in a quid pro quo of catholic proportions.  What was once denied to Satan in his fiery masque, was now embraced by a Body, as Paul phrased it, double-minded and grasping for security.

Jesus had refused the purple of Caesar.  The colour would have set him apart.  That would have not been the character of Emmanuel.  Equality with the vain claims of the Emperor was no enticement for this Nazarene.  Just the same, successive generations have been beguiled by the rich, distinctive colour.  Disciples have coveted the authority accompanying the precious dye. 

Condescension is a view from a tower with foundations in Jerusalem, and Istanbul and Seville.  Some towers are less obvious.  But the temptation is no less real.

Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santori set purple aside for the Red Cap.  He would arraign the accused with the question “Knowest Thou, why Thou art here?”  His opening gambit brought results because the accused would somehow end up accusing himself.


Ivan’s Lenten indictment is powerful in its poetic expression.  While he knew of Santori – at least by reputation, his Grand Inquisitor remains nameless.  Anonymity is maintained in any good parable worth repeating.  We are challenged in successive generations by his insight.

Our Lenten fast has less to do with the silly deprivations we subscribe to for a short while.  We would do better to reflect on how Jesus annoys us – challenging us to engage his Temptations as our own.  Knowing what he has done is no assurance that we are faithful in following his example. 

Jesus has annoyed the powerful and arrogant in every generation and particularly those who presume to know his mind and speak for him.  The Grand Inquisitor knows the solution and prescribes a flame that would correct the imperfections of compassion in the midst of a hurting world… even at the steps of the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.

How have we succumbed to the Temptations and abhorred Jesus’ resolute faith in the scriptural accounts?  I suspect that our infidelities have been quickly justified.  Ours are exceptional reasons and excusable.

The long shadow of the Giralda features the faint impression on the stone pavement of a statue atop the Tower: a statue representing Faith.  The shadow plays between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus visiting the streets of Seville.  The movement is tracked by the sun with growing strength and lengthening shadows as the days stretch towards spring.  Sometimes clouds obscure our faith.  The play continues for us as faith emerges in the tension of a Lent where we find ourselves both embracing our Messiah and leading him to Golgotha again and again.


“There was nothing left but faith in what the heart doth say,” comments Ivan.

Copyright © 2008 James T. Irvine

Series 2008

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton

Background: The Giralda - Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, Seville

Image: The Inquisitor - The Crucifixion   MidiQuem Pastores