Overcome With Paschal Joy

It’s remarkable that during this triumphant Easter season I’ve been led to meditations on death. Could there be a better time for that topic?

First, regarding how we refer to that dread event: “death.”

We usually prefer to use a euphemism for that experience: passing away; meeting our Maker; or even the more flippant buying the farm. We save blessed event for the happy birth of a child, but we could just as easily and accurately apply that phrase to death, especially during this holy season when we are “overcome with Paschal joy.”

At Easter, we refer to Christ’s victory over death. It’s easy to grow over-accustomed to phrases like this and lose the depth of their meaning. Only recently have I come to a discovery of what this phrase means. Jesus obviously did not “conquer” death by eliminating it. Instead, he ran to meet it, even though his was the very worst kind of death, having been unjustly convicted of the most heinous crime, so far removed from the very purpose of his existence: total dedication and fidelity to God’s message and his mission. His was a cruel death to both body and dignity.

The victory was in his resurrection, attested to by so many so that we latecomers might be convinced of an unending future with him. At his farewell, Christ told his Apostles:

You have faith in God; have faith in me also!
I am going first to prepare a place for you,
so that you may be with me and the Father for all time.

What a blessed season for dying! A few days after Easter, our loving Benedictine Brother Justin died unexpectedly. Two of my own siblings also died during Easter week some years ago. I’ve always considered this a great grace: to enter heaven accompanied by our resurrected Savior.

I’ve also found myself inspired with a new appreciation for the famous poem of John of the Cross. The translation as the “Dark Night” is really inexact. The poet writes of a blessed night that may be obscure for sure, but not totally dark. He speaks of a graced obscurity where a divine light serves as his guide. Like St. Paul, he sees only “darkly” now. He knows there is something behind or within this obscurity; it is neither totally black nor totally empty. He has the certain expectation of finding a splendor beyond imagining. The light of faith assures him that there is a brilliance to this particular night, a brilliance hidden from his understanding, but no less true and blindingly beautiful. He knows that human understanding is too weak and limited to grasp, except through grace, what is really happening and why. While John of the Cross refers to the spiritual journey in life, his description can be equally applied to the process of a Christian death.

These contemporary Spanish mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both wrote poems on the theme of longing for the only way to see God: in death. I die because I do not die!

John of the Cross:

I live, but not in myself,
And I have such hope
That I die because I do not die.

Teresa of Avila:

I live only with the confidence
that I have to die . . .
Death, do not delay,
for I await you,
for I die because I do not die.

These poet-saints echo St. Paul’s utterly consoling statement: For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

To die is gain. No longer will we need to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses of God’s love. Paul realized that the most beautiful aspect of being alive on this earth is knowing Christ, being certain of his love and brotherhood here, and our relationship coming to complete fruition after death. We know that a faith-filled death assures us of an enduring and ever-increasing joy in God’s presence, along with the presence of our loved ones previously considered lost to us.

I certainly won’t deny the pain that we, the survivors, must endure when a loved one dies. When a beloved friend leaves us, that death creates a large hole of emptiness and grief. But even that space is a blessing. For into that crater of grief, God pours the ever-increasing and certain comfort of His presence, love, and compassion.

This is the true joy of the Paschal season, in that we have been gifted with knowledge of Christ’s own death and resurrection. We can never again view death as a terminus, but as our third birth: birth as a human in a universe of time, space and matter; rebirth as Christians in a baptism of faith and love; and the final, culminating birth-in-death when through Christ we are transformed and welcomed into an unending union with the All-Loving Trinity.

Easter Joy
Life is changed, not taken away.

 

 

 

 

When loss is gain . . .

This week we will be remembering the events surrounding the arrest and execution of Christ. We need to supplement this troubling narration with St. John’s chapters 14 through 17 where we hear Jesus repeating words of comfort and reassurance to his disciples.

They know that danger lies ahead for their Lord. When Jesus had set his sights for Jerusalem, Thomas urged his brothers: “Let us go to die with him.” And of course, though they went with him, they certainly did not stay with him after he was arrested.

Nonetheless, Jesus is the one to offer strength and encouragement to his disciples. He is fully aware of their sense of loneliness, of their fear of being stranded in a hostile world that they, unlike their Master, are as yet ill-equipped to handle.

They have had only three years to work on understanding the deep mysteries their teacher patiently tried to explain. What did he mean about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”? What did he mean by saying that he existed before Abraham, and by describing himself in virtually blasphemous terms: I AM, and calling God his Father? No wonder he knew he would not be allowed to live much longer and teach such wild ideas.

Now, as they all wait in dread for the inevitable reality, they can’t keep their wits about them. The three leaders, Peter, James and John, can’t even stay awake at a time when their senses ought to be at their keenest. Peter: no rock there. Only bravado.

The words of Christ in those chapters of John are deeply personal as nowhere else in the Gospels. What is more, he emphasizes – of all things – the positive aspect of his final disgrace. Jesus speaks openly about his death and tries to console his friends by assuring them that he will, in a “little while,”  come for them and take them to the home he will prepare for them with the Father.

He tells them how necessary this separation is and that he will not leave them orphans. As the evening progresses, Jesus’ words become more explicit and enigmatic at the same time. “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.” Advocate? Another new idea for them with no time to explore its meaning.

Jesus tells us of the positive value of his sacrifice, since it will result in the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the disciples will experience a deep sense of loss only to be brought to unity and the fullness of the Resurrection.

The letter to the Philippians (2:7), read on Palm Sunday, gives us a clue to discovering the paradoxical value of Jesus’ spiritual poverty: He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The loss of dignity along with loss of life left Jesus as the lowest of the low, the form of a slave. A slave owns nothing, not even his own life. If and when we might be called to undergo a radical emptying, it will be to make space for the Holy Spirit, for the Trinity, to live within us more fully. This Jesus models for us by submitting freely to his execution – an extreme to which very few (if any) of us will be subjected.

So we learn that separation or loss is the prelude to union. This union can occur – partially, at least – BEFORE we die. This holy and transformative togetherness can begin now, while we’re still on this planet, if only we commit to loving others as Christ loved us.

Yes, separation, loss or detachment is necessary. Some heroic saints, like Francis or Thérèse, take the initiative in this emptying. But it is not less valuable when we patiently accept loss. Certainly, we’re given plenty of opportunities to experience it: in the death or distance of loved ones or, unfortunately, separation through misunderstandings and grudges. It occurs with the loss of precious things: our health, needing to leave a beloved home, school or church. Even in these common experiences, the Holy Spirit stands ready to wean us ever more from the material we cling to, preparing us for a fuller spiritual life: our divinization, our transformation into other Christs, re-incarnations, so to speak, into what Christ was for others on this earth.

Don’t cling to me, ” Jesus will tell Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. We cannot develop the necessary strength for the ultimate Communion, without collaborating with the Holy Spirit as we work our way out of our human cocoon. We are assured of success through Jesus’ prayer:

I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
. . . that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me,

that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20-21;22b-24)

No, separation is not total, nor is death the end; not for Christ and not for us. Through the love and sacrifice of Christ, we are graced to begin our new union with God — here.

Dali Cross
Dali: The Christ of St. John of the Cross