“Man was matter. That was Snowden’s secret.” After a hundred pages of war wounds and twisting metal, despair and PTSD, this line in Catch-22 barbs like shrapnel. “Man is matter.” Watching blood pour from bodies and cruelty triumph over any hope of opposing chaos, the soldiers learn this lesson painfully well. We readers beside them feel it, too.
A month ago, the news channels streamed the name “Snowden.” In my mind, it conjured up the recurring flashback of the book, wherein we hear hints of Snowden’s secret until finally we are told “man was matter.” This we hear upon examining Snowden’s dead and instantly corrupting body beside the protagonist in the plane. The author of Catch-22, Heller, saw the secret tragedy of humankind in the dark proclamation that man was matter, plain and stark.
Snowden’s secret was that man was not spirit, not eternal, not divinely made. Man was rotting meat.
Though the argument is not a presentation of discursive logic, it overwhelms me. That simple set of seven words challenges my every assumption about the world. Because, at the end of it, there are two possibilities: Man is Divine or man is matter. We are either the image of God or rotting meat. That is the secret. Opting for the first requires too much of our lives. Opting for the second requires only that we accept death. Our culture opts for the second, in a frenzy of denial. Behind the science that believes it can answer the problem of mortality, behind the plastic surgery that flees the possibility of visibly approaching death, there is the belief that man is matter. Kept secret, the belief that man is matter is the terrifying assumption at the heart of any life besides a religious one.
But, matter is more precious than imagined. Though I read the line “Man was matter” with a chill and a revulsion, I feel the answer even here. There is a cool refreshment to the voice of the incarnate Christ in my ear as I whisper, terrified, “Man is matter?” and He says the answer is more glorious than I can conceive.
The horror of man as matter rests in my conception of matter. But, matter is not an undignified thing. The dust and lazy stone and leaf veins all share in the dignity of matter, created by God. At heart, the very matter I fear is me is also the matter assumed by God in the incarnation.
What Heller failed to see when he wrote that terrifying proclamation – man was matter – is that, once and since Ascension eternally, matter was God. Not pantheistically or utterly; matter can never be equated with God. Yet, by choice, the eternal God who created all things made Himself into matter in the incarnation, forever changing the dignity and stature of matter. The matter I am is nothing to terrify my soul with fears of mortality or whispers of insignificance. The matter I am is ennobled by the Incarnation of the Lord. Yes – man was matter. Heller saw enough to see more than most. What greater challenge is there than to actually see the visible when the entire world seeks to cover it up?
Yet, the matterdom of mankind is no secret to the Christian. We celebrate our ability to act as the body of Christ, making visible the eternal God through our bodies, and we trust in the resurrection of these bodies. We hold unshakeable within us the remembrance of God’s judgments. The great secret of Heller’s Snowden is no secret to the Christian. The non-Christian must live in constant denial of her false belief that she is bare matter. The Christian has no denial of her state as matter, nor the compulsion to limit her state to one of soulless matter. No, the perfect Christian is one who has no secret from herself. She knows her matter and knows more.
Of course, today’s Snowden also had a secret. In 2013, Snowden’s secret is that there is someone watching. Unjustifiable as the actions behind that secret are, when we take a step back, it provides an insight.
Once again, the Christian knows Snowden’s secret and knows more. Whereas the non-Christians may live as though they are untraceable, as though their actions have no impact on those around them, as though they have secrets, the Christian never can. The non-Christian is startled by the rude awakening that someone has been watching. The Christian, quite the contrary, has always lived in the knowledge that God is watching. The Christian has always known Snowden’s secrets:
Man is mortal.
Our private actions are known.
Yet, shining our lights higher, we illuminate beyond the terrifying fringes of these statements. We see beyond the fearful image these convey and glance where the joy lies in the greater picture. Man is mortal, but death has been defeated. Our actions are seen, but so are our pains, our trials, our moments of love, and all by One who loves.
The world has secrets that bleed and leak, but the Lord has mysteries that ages cannot fathom.