Reading Flannery O’Connor & Reflecting on Lent, Part 2
What we discover in O’Connor’s stories and Martin Luther’s theology is that God’s grace is elusive because the human heart is resistant to it.
The author Flannery O’Connor, a devout Roman Catholic, was constantly drawing her readers into the story of Jesus’ last supper. In this pivotal moment in the Gospels, we see Christ sharing a final meal with his disciples, breaking bread and sharing wine, even as he knows that betrayal and suffering lie just ahead. For O’Connor, this scene encapsulates the paradoxical nature of faith: the mingling of hope and despair, the promise of salvation in the midst of a fallen world.
It is fitting, then, that Martin Luther, also had much to say about the meaning of the last supper. Luther’s theology emphasized that salvation is obtained through faith alone, rather than through good works. He saw the Lord’s Supper as how sinners receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, as a way to receive the forgiveness of sins through his shed blood in the present tense. In Luther’s view, the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ Jesus serve as a powerful testimony to Christ’s sacrifice, the believer’s need for grace, and how God chooses to communicate forgiveness, new life, and salvation to us.
For O’Connor, this tension between what the sacrament is and how we perceive it is at the heart of many of her stories. In her short story “The Lame Shall Enter First,” for example, the protagonist, a self-righteous social worker named Sheppard, tries to save a troubled teenage boy named Rufus through his own good works and rational explanations. Sheppard views Rufus as a project, a way to prove his own moral superiority and win the approval of his dead wife’s ghost, whom he imagines watching over him. But Rufus is a complex character, struggling with poverty, abuse, and grief, and his anger and resentment ultimately drive him to commit a violent act. Rufus also finds a kind of twisted comfort in his own guilt and despair, and so rejects Sheppard’s offer and turns away.
O’Connor weaves the theme of the last supper into this story, as Sheppard’s attempt to “save” Rufus is a kind of misguided communion, a flawed attempt to offer salvation through his own works and wisdom. More than that, we can explore Luther’s theology in the story also, as Rufus’s rejection of Sheppard’s message reflects his own sense of unworthiness and need for grace. The story ends on a note of bleak ambiguity, leaving the reader to wonder whether Rufus will ever find redemption, or whether he is truly beyond hope.
In another O’Connor story, “Revelation,” the last supper scene is more explicitly present. The story centers around a woman named Mrs. Turpin, who prides herself on her moral superiority and her place in the social hierarchy. But when she has a vision of souls ascending to heaven, she is forced to confront the fact that she is not as righteous as she thought. In the climactic scene of the story, Mrs. Turpin has a kind of epiphany, in which she sees herself as a “warthog from hell” and realizes that she is in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.
This scene is reminiscent of the last supper, as Mrs. Turpin is humbled and brought low before God, much like the disciples who ate with Christ at the table. The story also touches on Luther’s theology, as Mrs. Turpin’s realization of her own sinfulness is a kind of conversion experience, a moment of grace that comes from faith rather than works.
What we discover in O’Connor’s stories and Martin Luther’s theology is that God’s grace is elusive because the human heart is resistant to it. Our own pride and self-righteousness get in the way of our receiving the grace and forgiveness we so desperately need.
Finally, in one of her most famous stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor again draws the reader into the theme of the last supper, albeit in a more sinister form. The story centers around a family on a road trip, who are ambushed by a group of criminals and ultimately killed. In the final moments of the story, the grandmother is given an epiphany, in which she realizes that the criminal who is about to shoot her is also a child of God. But her realization comes too late, and she is killed.
When we meditate on Jesus’ last supper, and come to the Lord’s Supper, it is a powerful testimony of the paradoxical nature of faith.
The last supper theme is present here in the sense of a final meal, a final communion, in which the grandmother realizes that all human beings are in need of grace and forgiveness, even those who are most depraved. But the story also explores the dark side of this theme, the ways in which our own pride and self-righteousness can blind us to the grace and forgiveness that is sitting right in front of us.
When we meditate on Jesus’ last supper, and come to the Lord’s Supper, it is a powerful testimony of the paradoxical nature of faith, and the way in which God’s grace and forgiveness is delivered to us in the midst of our sin and death. At the Lord’s Supper, Christians are faced with the complexities of the human heart and the reason for Jesus’ sacrificial death on a cross for our redemption. The Lord’s Supper also communicates to sinners that grace and forgiveness is something that comes to us through faith, rather than through our own good works or moral superiority.
In the end, Jesus’ last supper as it’s depicted in the Gospels is a powerful testimony to Jesus’ struggle with sin, the world, and the devil to deliver salvation to us, and the way in which we are all in need of grace and forgiveness, even as we try to save ourselves through our own efforts. And yet, ultimately Jesus’ last supper is a present tense word of hope in the midst of a fallen world, that nothing and no one can stop Jesus from delivering forgiveness of sin, new life, and eternal salvation to us.