by Sandra Beardsall
St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon
“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” These are the musings of Daisy Buchanan, the beautiful and flighty woman who has become an obsession for Jay Gatsby. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic 1925 novel, resurfaced recently in a new film rendition from director Baz Luhrmann. Gatsby, the story’s central character, was born dirt poor but has amassed a huge fortune through illegal means. The sole purpose of his lucrative shady dealings is to lure Daisy, with whom Gatsby had a pre-war romance, away from her wealthy husband, Tom. Gatsby buys a mansion across a New York City bay from the Buchanans’ opulent home, and throws parties that drip with the lavish hedonism of the Roaring Twenties, in the hope that Daisy will attend one of them, and the love they knew together will be rekindled.
The dazzling emptiness of Gatsby’s manufactured lifestyle both fascinates and repels, and would leave most peace-and-justice Christians squirming at the excess. The problem, however, is that in this Sunday’s gospel reading, we encounter a story that features a somewhat similar display of embarrassing extravagance. In Luke 7 we meet a woman of the city, a “sinner” – although we do not know how she has sinned. She comes to the home of Simon the Pharisee, where Jesus is having dinner. She weeps all over Jesus’ feet, dries them with her hair, then massages them with ointment from an alabaster jar. Jesus does not squirm at this attention. Rather, he turns to Simon, whose religious life would have centred on practicing careful discipline, and commends the woman’s generosity. He notes that Simon has been far less attentive, even though he invited Jesus to be his guest. Jesus then says, somewhat cryptically, that because she has been forgiven many sins, this woman has shown “great love.”
Great love, just like the Great Gatsby? They do have some things in common, the criminal Gatsby and the sinning woman of the city. Both have made a public and expensive commitment for the sake of love. But Gatsby loves Daisy, who represents, we might say, what author Fitzgerald saw as the false promise of the American Dream. Her loveliness is shallow and selfish; Gatsby’s quest (spoiler alert!) is doomed to failure. The woman of the city loves Jesus. His loveliness is deep and self-giving. His promise is forgiveness and life. That is the kind of love to lavish, the gospel story suggests – on Jesus, and on the world he so loves.
Daisy’s lines about always missing the longest day of the year have stayed with me since I first read The Great Gatsby in high school. They seem to represent all the ways we thoughtlessly cast off the gifts we receive, including the gift of a long summer’s day. Desperately concerned that I not become a careless “Daisy,” I determined from then on always to watch for the longest day of the year and not miss it. In 1996, that longest day, June 21st, got added meaning in Canada when it was officially named National Aboriginal Day. Few relationships speak more urgently to the need for forgiveness than those of the Canadian churches with the First Nations of the land. The extent of the damage can leave us all – aboriginal and non-aboriginal – paralyzed by guilt, loss, brokenness, shame, despair. But the woman of the city knew that there was another way, that there is a path through guilt and shame to forgiveness to love. That is the long path we walk together as we seek truth and reconciliation, the gift of relationship restored. This time, we pledge not to miss it.
And so we come this week to that special benefaction of our spinning blue planet’s tilt: the summer solstice, that glorious longest day. It offers us the chance to revel in lingering light, to ponder what forgiveness and healing might mean, and so to find the joy and courage to lavish this wondrous Creation with all the love and justice our hearts can hold.
Sandra Beardsall is Professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon, a theological school of the United Church of Canada. She has served on a number of ecumenical committees and boards, and is currently a member of the Anglican/United Church Dialogue group.