Both, And

“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” ~ Psalm 32:1

In one of my first classical studies courses, my professor told us the ancients didn’t think in terms of “either this, or that,” but rather as “both this, and that.”[1] This was said in relation to nature myths, such as how Daphne is both a laurel tree, and a young maiden.  She is not one or the other.  She is both, and the ancients saw no discrepancy in the matter.

This concept was such a small part of the class, and yet it changed the way I viewed my faith.  I have always had a great deal of anxiety over my sin, often fretting long into the night that God had left me, or would leave me.  I knew I constantly “stumbled” into nameless sins each day; heaven forbid I actually “fall” into a serious sin (as we like to say).  Certainly I’d be forsaken then.

It never dawned on me that God chose to stay, despite my sin, because of the blood of His Son.  In my mind, Jesus’ blood only covered what came before my salvation; everything after was up to me.  After all, I should know better; what excuse could I have to claim more forgiveness?

To realize I could see myself as both sinner, and saved – no matter what I’d done, or ever would do – was a concept too good to be true.

But the newly converted gentiles in Jesus day would have understood they were both forever sinful, and forever redeemed – that is, forgiven and free.  They knew both were true, and one did not affect the other once you were hidden in Christ.

They knew they could be both sinner and saved.

Helen of Sparta: Both Sinner and Saved

In all the Greek myths, there is perhaps no one so controversial – nor so memorable – as Helen of Sparta (whom people erroneously call “Helen of Troy”).  Here was a woman who had it all – and then threw it away on a worthless man.  With one misstep, this paragon of female beauty became a whore…and yet also, the sources say, a victim.

Each new generation retells Helen’s story, trying to vindicate – or blame – this iconic figure.  For what it’s worth, the most ancient sources see Helen and Paris’ affair as a mutual thing between equals, and Helen’s rape seems to be a later rendering.[2]  This rendition would make her culpable for the affair; and yet, in those same sources, she is presented as pitiable.

But which is she?

Why, she’s both, and of course.

Helen chose to have an affair – maybe she even “fell” into the sin, like David and Bathsheba; yet she did not mean to start a war where so many of her friends and loved ones perished.  She chose to have an affair, and yet she regrets it bitterly and longs for her first husband, Menelaos.[3]

That is the way of sin, after all.  We may choose it – or “fall” into it, as we like to say – which makes us culpable; but then it takes us down a dark and twisted road, far more deadly than we had ever imagined.  The Enemy uses that one choice – or perhaps a myriad of little choices – to bring destruction and chaos into our lives.

Helen both chooses a sinful course, and yet she is a victim of it, too.  She is both culpable, and pitiable.  She is both, and.

The Gospel to the Gentiles

I’ve been studying Helen and her story for almost five years now.  After all that time, I’m convinced her story endures for two reasons:

First, it is because all women can see traces of their own tears on Helen’s face.  Whether it’s the horror of rape or the agony of a loveless marriage, there is enough substance of the myth to fit yourself into Helen’s shoes.

The second reason, however, is the most important.

Regardless of how Helen got to Troy, she is always taken back to Sparta by her first husband, Menelaos.  He has the right to kill her for her crimes – which an affair would have been, despite her birthright as Sparta’s queen.  It was a common penalty in the ancient world, and no one would have blamed him.[4]

Yet he chooses to take her back to Sparta and love her as if nothing had happened.  The wages of her hubris and atê should have been death, and yet she is given life.

She both deserves death, and yet receives forgiveness.  She is both a sinner, and saved.

There is no explaining this in Greek mythology.  In all other accounts of hubris and atê, the offender pays for the crime.  But not Helen.   What’s more, no one is able to forget her.  She has lived on for about three thousand years.

As both sinner and saved.

Why?  Why this gem of a story in the midst of so many unhappy myths?

Because this most famous story exudes the gospel, if only we had eyes to see it.  Like Menelaos, God had every right to kill us in our sin.  We had wronged him terribly.  Instead, he forgave us, taking us back as if nothing had happened, and loved us.

He made it possible for us to be both sinner and saved.  We are both, and.

Just like Helen.

 

Sources

[1] Taken from lecture notes, 9/6/2011.

[2] Bettany Hughes, Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 135-140

[3] Homer, Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), Book 3, line 139-142 and 403-404.

[4] Hughes, Helen of Troy, 190

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