The grapes of wrath

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Memorial of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr

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The grapes of wrath

Two heroes died on this day, C. S. Lewis, veteran of World War I and John F. Kennedy, veteran of World War II.

Both were writers, and both captured the imagination of their generation. C. S. Lewis inspired the people of beleaguered Great Britain during the darkest days of World War II with his lectures on Mere Christianity. President Kennedy, in the inauguration address in 1961, spoke out into the bright January sunshine, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country!”

This new president, author of Profiles in Courage, meant what he said; he founded the Peace Corps among other service opportunities, and inspired young people all across the United States, including me. I turned 14 five days before the day they died.

I didn’t know C. S. Lewis yet; reading his books came later. But everyone in Lincoln, Illinois knew President Kennedy. On Friday, November 22, 1963, Mr. Denny suspended our freshman algebra class when the intercom interrupted with a CBS news bulletin: “The president has been shot.” Television went back to “As the World Turns,” but not for long. We were shocked, talking, asking questions, and then Walter Cronkite was back on the air.

“From Dallas, Texas, this flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 pm Central Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” Cronkite took off his thick black rimmed glasses, his voice breaking, obviously struggling not to weep, before he continued.

We stayed in school for a couple more classes, always listening on the intercom. After a very subdued bus ride home, our family sat in the living room watching black and white TV for the rest of the weekend. Jackie, nearly six year old Caroline, and her small son John-John walked beside the black carriage. We were spellbound, and broken hearted, and all of us wept along with Mr. Cronkite.

It was November 25, John-John’s third birthday. Outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, John-John “stepped forward and rendered a final salute” as his dad’s casket was carried out.

The Kennedys had four children. One was stillborn in 1956, another died two days after his birth in 1963. I didn’t know that till today. Oh my gosh, what sadness that family carried. Then there was John the president, and Robert the candidate, both assassinated five years apart. And when he was 38, John-John was killed in a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard.

C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Great Divorce, and Mere Christianity, and Perelandra, and much more. He said, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” He loved the world in which he found himself. At the same time, he did not love it. He wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” His obituary was inside the paper, since Kennedy’s took the whole front page.

So, today is the almost 70th anniversary of their deaths, these two heroes in the world of men. And as I think of them, I read from Revelation.

There was a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. “Use your sickle, reap the harvest.” And so it was done. “Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it, then, into the great wine press of God’s fury.

When Julia Ward Howe heard these words, she transmuted them into an “abolitionist battle cry, summing up the best causes that spurred the Union to civil war.”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored!

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on. Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

John Steinbeck plucked four words and made a novel of it. The Grapes of Wrath is concerned with fertility, and the brokenness that is cultivated by hardship and hurt, within “an agriculture that produces violence and decay instead of fruit.”

What signs will there be, Teacher? And Jesus said, “Many will come in my name but do not follow them if they say the time has come. But there will be wars, when nation will rise against nation, and there will be powerful earthquakes, famines and plagues from place to place.”

Julia Ward Howe’s last words of her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are often sung almost in a whisper.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me …

(Revelation 14, Psalm 96, Revelation 2, Luke 21)

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1 Comment

  1. John
    November 22, 2022

    I remember Mrs Steffens, our second grade teacher, having us all pray for the president. Something, I guess , wouldn’t be allowed today. I remember you and I stayed home from church. Diabetes was just found in my life and for some reason, you and I didn’t go to church that day. I remember telling you, that they were bringing Oswald out. Then I remember hollering to you that they had shot him and you, running out from the bedroom to see. I keep track of how long I’ve had diabetes by when Kennedy was shot.


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