Power and Glory
Whiskey Priest: Drunk With the Wine of the World
(Mark 13:24-27; I Thessalonians 5:6-11)
“The man’s dark suit and sloping shoulders reminded him uncomfortably of a coffin and death was in his carious mouth already.” (14) “Already clouds were darkening the heavens, and President Calles was discussing the anti-Catholic laws in the Palace at Chapultepec. The devil was ready to assail poor Mexico.” (50) “It was like the end: there was no need to hope any longer. The ten years’ hunt was over at last. There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.” (125)
Three scenes, one man’s story captured in one great book. The man? A whiskey priest. The book? Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory. I can’t share the whole great book, but I can give you the short version by way of explaining these three scenes. I can introduce you to this fascinating clergyman.
We meet the Whiskey Priest in the first scene. This description actually gives the impression that he looks like the walking dead. While I believe that he was dying emotionally and spiritually, and killing himself physically, he was, in fact, the walking dead because of the target on his back. This story is about a Whiskey Priest who is running for his life.
In the second scene I shared, we find out why the priest is running. Both scenes speak to the cloud hanging over this priest and the Mexican town where he finds himself. Death and decay really do characterize both. If we take note of that second quote, we find that Greene is not afraid to bring up a subject that many of us today shy away from----the devil. He suggests with his language that the devil will wage a violent attack. And according to history, he does. If you read about this time in Mexican history, you will find that the killing of Christians was so extensive between 1926 and 1929 that they were called the “Years of the Martyrs.” Church as we know it was shut down. Catholic schools were taken over. Priests were being killed. And it is here that we find our Whiskey Priest, who by the way is called the Whiskey Priest because of the very concrete reality: he is an alcoholic.
And finally, in the third scene, we catch a glimpse of this alcoholic’s predicament and his worldview. The Whiskey Priest is caught by the authorities and put in jail. Amazingly, he is ready to be caught. Not because of some idealistic view of martyrdom, but because of sheer exhaustion. And this exhaustion is not because of the running that he has done. No this exhaustion is caused by the weight of the world. This exhaustion is caused by a life lived in turmoil. Exhaustion caused by a life lived in a world that compares to an overcrowded jail cell. The only comfort that the Whiskey Priest seems to find is in the end. The Gospel is about the Good News, but where is the Good News in this story?
Essentially, this Whiskey Priest is on the run in Mexico because Christianity has been outlawed and priests are being martyred. He has a fleshly addiction, and because of this, he has unintentionally fathered a child. While children are so often seen as a blessing full of hope and possibility, this child is represented as possessed and lost. But through it all, Greene’s Whiskey Priest chooses to continue in the priesthood. He could have quit, but he does not. At one point when it is suggested that he should renounce his faith, he simply replies: “It’s impossible. There’s no way. I’m a priest. It’s out of my power.” And there it is! That word “power” put me on the right path to the Good News! It’s right on the cover. “The power and the glory!”
Greene does not intend to send us through this story of doom and gloom unprepared. He gives us a title that says it all. I don’t know about you, but for me, those words just seem to lighten the weight. No doubt, the first thought that comes to mind after reading the title is the Lord’s Prayer and the doxology that it contains. “For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” It’s all about You, Lord! I could stop right there and dare you to argue with me, but I think there is more story to tell. Let’s go back to the passage in Mark.
Let me read verse 14 for you. “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (when you see church property being destroyed and priests being murdered) (let the reader understand), then those in Judea (those in Tabasco, Mexico) must flee to the mountains…” Pardon the additions, but I think it is essential for us to connect this passage in Mark, which is apocalyptic in its nature, to this story of the Whiskey Priest and the persecution in Mexico. If you don’t do this, you can’t get the Good News, the news that sustained those who were persecuted in the early church. I read this and I was thinking that I probably would have taken this advice and headed to the mountains and never looked back. But the priest did not flee; he stayed. And I want to believe that God stayed with him even though he did not heed the advice to head to the mountains.
Now look at verse 24: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Suffering. Death. Decay. I can’t help thinking about the Passion of Christ. The suffering He endured. And then when He actually hung His head and died. James Weldon Johnson, capturing the beauty of Black preaching, put it this way: “And the veil of the temple was split in two, The midday sun refused to shine, The thunder rumbled and the lightning wrote an unknown language in the sky.” Nature rebelled. Notice nature in Greene’s story. On the very first page, the river is running away “towards the sea.” Then, we see banana plantations, swamps and vultures. No pretty flowers to brighten this dismal scene. Once again, we’re moving further and further away from the Good News. But stay with me; all hope is not lost.
Look at verse 26: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” There it is! I heard a pastor sum up apocalyptic literature with four points; he said: things are bad, they’re going to get worse, God’s in control, keep the faith. Can I say that again? Things are bad. They’re going to get worse. Keep the faith. God’s in control. If we look at Greene’s story, we can see that things are bad and getting worse, if that’s possible. Although this Whiskey Priest struggles with his own wretchedness, he has faith in his priestly office. He believes in the power of that office. Although his body seems to be decaying and his strength is failing, he does not lose his faith. If you read the story, you find that the priest does lead a wretched life. He even acknowledges feelings of hopelessness. (141) But in his defense, I must say that he is on the run alone. He admits that when the last priest left, he “began to go to pieces.” (196)
So where are we? We are in the midst of persecution. Death and decay are all around. This faithful, but drunken priest has accepted what is going on and has loss hope of his own survival. In fact, before the story ends, this priest, our beloved Whiskey Priest, is executed by a firing squad. So where is the hope of glory? Where is Mark 13:26? It’s right here in this room! Look around. Think of all of the martyrs that came before and after this priest. It’s because of folks like him that we are sitting here as a part of the community of faith, the body of believers.
Mr. Greene’s Whiskey Priest, in all his drunkenness, was able to keep it going. In this desolate place, God was with him. He didn’t have a covenant group or a prayer partner, but by God’s power he held on long enough for somebody to get the message. This whiskey priest was powerless when it came to his own demons. He saw a world filled with evil. At first glance, it seems that he failed to reveal the “glory of the Lord” in his actions. But did he really fail? He stayed in the midst of persecution. He stayed in a world where he was overwhelmed, overextended, alone, addicted and in extreme danger. (And you thought your appointment was rough.) The reality: we may have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death in order for God to get His due glory. But we are not ever really alone; the power of the Holy Spirit goes with us.
A Sober Priest
I am reminded of a passage in I Thessalonians 5. Paul tells believers: Don’t go to sleep! Stay focused and faithful. I’m guessing that our Whiskey Priest missed the part about being ‘sober,’ but seriously, we cannot. We must remain sober. Why is this so important?
It’s important because the power and the glory of God are real. And like Greene’s Whiskey Priest, we have been called to share this news with the world. We cannot be so affected by the world that we forget how to do that. Christians are being persecuted today, all around the world. We cannot sleep through their persecution. Our neighbors are suffering due to oppressive governments and other systemic problems. Children are dying daily of diseases that have cures. Even in the twenty-first century, in a technologically advanced, prosperous nation like the U.S., people remain uneducated, undereducated and impoverished. My sisters and brothers, we are called to be alert, awake and sober. Unlike this priest, we can look around this room and know that we are not alone. We have prayer partners, encouragers and friends in the call. Paul says “encourage one another and build up each other.”
Somebody is probably angry with me because I promised you some good news, but I just keep giving you more bad news. Why should we be faithful to that call? Because it is not ours to reject. It is impossible to reject, because we are called. As the Whiskey Priest despondently states: it is out of our power.
Our calling is bigger than us, just as Greene’s story is bigger than the Whiskey Priest. When we get past the death and decay so vividly expressed by Greene, we can see the power and the glory of God at work through a damaged, nearly broken vessel! This story is not about death, it’s not about an ending; it is about this continuous retelling of a story that started over 2000 years ago at a place called Golgotha. But wait! That’s not all! I saved the best news for last. Greene’s story does not end with the martyrdom of the Whiskey Priest. No, it doesn’t end there.
Not long after the firing squad put their weapons away, in this little Mexican town, a young boy answers the door to find a man standing there. “…suddenly lowering his voice he said to the boy, ‘I am a priest.’ ‘You?’ the boy exclaimed.’” Notice the boy’s surprise. This suggests to me that the person standing at the door was not impressive in appearance. I have to wonder if he lacked the holy aura that many of us would love to assume. But none of this matters, because before this priest could even give his name, the little boy “had already swung the door open…” And the story begins again. The door is open! Not a crack, but it is swung open, wide. The glory of the Lord is being revealed again and again. Another unlikely vessel being used for the task of revealing the power and the glory to all. Somebody that looks like me, maybe. Somebody that has the bad habits that I have. Somebody that messes up sometimes. An imperfect vessel being used by the powerful and glorious Jehovah! Yes, that’s Good News, my friends. That is indeed the best news I have heard in a long time.
Greene, Graham, and John Updike. The power and the glory. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Attridge, Harold W. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance. Fully Revised and Updated. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. Print.